Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tom Lehrer was right!

It came to my attention today that the 118th chemical element, temporarily designated as ununoctium, has recently been synthesized for the first time by researchers at the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the not-so-nearby Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia.

This came as somewhat of a surprise to me, inasmuch as the last time I formally studied chemistry — during the Dark Age of Disco — only 105 elements had been officially discovered, and two of those were still more or less on probationary status.

I had no idea that there were 13 more already.

I didn't know that Element 105, which I learned to call hahnium, is now officially dubbed dubnium.

I certainly knew nothing of Elements 106 through 117: seaborgium, bohrium, hassium, meitnerium, darmstadtium, roentgenium, ununbium, ununtrium, ununquadium, ununpentium, ununhexium, and ununseptium.

(I'm relieved, however, to find out that Element 104 is still rutherfordium. Whew.)

I'm sure that my lack of knowledge in this essential area of chemistry would come as a great disappointment to my high school science teacher, a fine fellow by the name of Mr. Buhn. Or perhaps it wouldn't, given my less than stellar scholastic exploits in Mr. Buhn's chemistry and physics classes back in the day.

But really, I should have known this would happen.

Tom Lehrer told me so.

A history lesson is doubtless in order for the age-deficient in our audience. In the 1950s and '60s, Harvard-educated mathematician turned ivory-tickling troubadour Tom Lehrer was the premier musical satirist of his time. Some would argue that he was the premier musical satirist of all time. Lehrer's lyrically convoluted ditties, which skewered everything from Sophocles ("Oedipus Rex") to thermonuclear warfare ("We Will All Go Together When We Go"), became wildly popular through a skein of hit record albums and concert appearances.

By 1964, Lehrer was a featured performer on the political satire series That Was the Week That Was (known to aficionados as TW3), where he regaled television audiences with hilarious lyrical creations making light of current events — everything from National Brotherhood Week to Wernher Von Braun.

In the early '70s, Lehrer lent his talents to the PBS children's series The Electric Company, the very same program that first brought the talents of actor Morgan Freeman (who played the character Easy Reader) to national acclaim. And yet another generation was charmed out of its collective socks by Lehrer's brilliance.

Having exhausted his interest in public spectacle, Lehrer retired from the stage and the recording studio in 1972. Returning to academia, he began a lengthy career as an instructor in mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz (fight fiercely, Banana Slugs!). He resurfaced briefly in the '80s, when Tomfoolery, a musical based on his songs, made the rounds of musical theaters across the country.

Anyway, I've told you all of that just to tell you this.

One of Lehrer's best-known songs is "The Elements," which basically consists of Lehrer reciting the periodic table to the tune of "The Major General's Song" from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Having rattled off all of the elements known to science at that date, Lehrer concludes:
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard...
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered.
(To appreciate the cleverness of the rhyme, imagine the lines being sung by, say, Ted Kennedy. Or the Gorton's fisherman.)

With the confirmation of the 118th element, Lehrer proves himself a prophet yet again.

And what of my old high school science teacher, Mr. Buhn? I run into him every now and again at my local comic book shop, of which he is also a patron. I read Spider-Man and Black Panther, he reads Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck.

But I think we both still dig Tom Lehrer.

Labels: ,

4 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Donna offered these pearls of wisdom...

Hey Uncle Swan, please be sure to tell Mr. Buhn (is he still teaching?) that yours truly said hello. He may recall you more readily than I. I enjoyed his class and had to work my butt off to get a passing grade. You were more scholastically talented in chemistry than I was. Perhaps it's consolation for you that I also didn't know that there were more than 105 elements. I don't frequent comic book shops, but if I did, I'd be right up there in the same class as our dear Mr. Buhn!

11:10 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Donna: Mr. Buhn is retired from full-time teaching, but he still pulls substitute gigs. KM has had him as a sub in her science classes several times during her high school tenure. Next time I run into him, I'll tell him you said "hey."

11:45 AM  
Blogger Janet offered these pearls of wisdom...

Ahh the fond memories of the Periodic Table come flooding back...

4:47 PM  
Blogger mbuhn offered these pearls of wisdom...

Mr. Buhn lives in Cotati. he still teaches on occassion as a sub. He retired in 1996, after more than 30 years asa teacher. He had a stroke a few years ago. it has effected him but not too badly. I am sure he will enjoy hearing that he was referenced online as a good teacher.

8:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home