Moseley event: Alphabet of Our Universe by Rachel McCarthy

On Tuesday 12 January 2016, the Museum of the History of Science hosted a sold-out event by Rachel McCarthy: a ‘part-lecture based on a sociological journey through the Periodic Table from its early formation to the chemistry of the present day and part-poetry reading from her book Element.’  The description of her visit and the event itself appeared on Rachel’s blog and she was also interviewed for the event by the Guardian.

Rachel McCarthy and her elements mug

Rachel McCarthy and her elements mug. Credit: Ian Beech Images.

I’ll come clean. I’m an instrumentation geek. Squeals of joy that only dogs can hear are emitted whenever I stray into the vicinity of astrolabes, early microscopes and yes, of course, the periodic table. I worry that we forget in our world of ‘invisible’ technology (the internet, mobile phone signals etc) the journey humankind has taken to get to such innovations and of the sacrifices involved.

The Museum of the History of Science charts that history and also shares it through public events.  I was very honoured to present ‘Alphabet of Our Universe’; part social history, part poetry reading, part chemistry talk, there on the 12th January to a sell-out crowd in the lab. Especially as it was accompanying their excellent exhibition ‘Dear Harry’, detailing the discoveries and life of the incredibly talented Harry Moseley. Moseley’s work on the X-ray spectra of the elements provided a new foundation for the Periodic Table and contributed to the development of the nuclear model of the atom. Yet Moseley’s life and career were cut short when he was killed in 1915, aged 27, in action at Gallipoli, Turkey.

Together we talked about Moseley, war, octopuses, iphones and why Henry VIII was called ‘old coppernose’.  We discussed inappropriate dinner parties, spermicide, a small outer villiage in Sweden, Marvel Comics and lunacy. Essentially, we talked about humanity. Elements are, well, elements. It is how we use them, for good or evil, love or war, that defines us.

Thank you; to everyone who came on the journey with me, the staff at the Museum of the History of Science, particularly its Director Dr Silke Ackerman,  Assistant Keeper Dr Stephen Johnston, Designer extraordinaire Keiko Ikeuchi  and for organising me, Public Engagement Officer Robyn Haggard. It was great meeting and conversing with you all.

Museums like this are jewels. In the same way I worry about us losing tales of awe in early science, I worry about us ‘not knowing what we got until it’s gone’ with museums. The Museum of the History of Science deserves every penny of funding it gets, and could do more with more – you can donate here.

Rachel McCarthy is a Senior Scientist at the Met Office, as well as an award-winning poet, essayist and broadcaster. In 2015 her collection Element caught the attention of the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who picked it out as marking one of the best new voices in British poetry, and Rachel as “one to watch”.  To find out more, visit her website.

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