Explore The Elements
The Elements exploration begins with a stunning 3D display of the Periodic Table, beloved by scientists and chemists alike. 90 elements occur naturally on Earth, with almost 30 more created in nuclear reactors and laboratories, yet you will be surprised how rare most of them are. Just six familiar elements - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus - make up 99% of the atoms in our bodies and only three elements – oxygen, silicon and aluminium – make up more than 85% of the Earth’s crust!
So what use are all of those other obscure elements? It turns out that even the rarest of them are far more useful than might think. Our modern lifestyle relies on many elements that most people have never heard of. Gallium and terbium are used in electric lights. Tantalum - the rarest non-radioactive element in the Universe – is essential for creating slim mobile phones. Without indium there simply would be no touch screens. And computer hard drives contain a whole smorgasbord of elements, from the familiar copper to the downright exotic hafnium.
What may surprise visitors is how many of these items on display link directly to our everyday lives - and how many of the different elements, sometimes strange and unfamiliar, we rely on. There also are examples of familiar elements that have been put to bizarre uses, such as lead, mercury and arsenic used in cosmetics or medicines, and exotic elements like titanium, niobium and zirconium turned into beautiful jewellery. Still other objects are just plain weird. A sparkplug tipped with deadly radioactive polonium, and a toy science kit containing radioactive elements and a geiger counter.
Of course the exhibition is not just for scientists. Don't be put off by the unfamiliar element names, as you need know nothing about science. The gallery is divided into familiar themes, such as Life and Death, Colour and Light, Progress and Technology, in which everyone will find a rich and fascinating variety of objects - artistic, historical, scientific, and even weird - accompanied by clear and simple explanations. Alongside them are stories – some sad, some tragic, others funny or surprising – that will dispel any notion that chemistry is irrelevant or dull.
Curator of the Elements exhibition, Dr Mike Simms has been delighted by the public’s response to the exhibition since it opened in March 2014:
"The exhibition was inspired by a book by Theodore Gray, in which the relevance of elements to all of us is beautifully described in words and pictures. My hope was that visitors young and old would be similarly inspired by this exhibition, the first of its kind anywhere in the UK, and visitor feedback show that many who come to the exhibition now see science in a new light.”
The Elements exhibition is part of the wider STEM programme and will be accompanied by a series of events, both for schools and for other visitors within the Ulster Museum. These will include STEM workshops, science shows, lectures and family events. Check the Ulster Museum website regularly to keep up-to-date with these events.