Chemistry Building’s Interactive Periodic Table Tells Stories, One Element at a Time – UConn Today
Christian Bruckner began amassing fortunes over 45 years ago as a young teenager in Germany whose father was a mineralogist who would bring home lab leftovers to feed his son’s growing interest in crystals and science.
From a bottle of mercury salt in the early 1800s to manganese nodules taken from the Pacific Ocean floor, Brückner’s childhood collection has grown piece by piece over the decades. He stumbled upon a tungsten carbide tool used to draw heavy wires from thicker diameter to thinner wire during a summer job as a student. Later in academia, a retired classmate gave him an antistatic brush once charged with polonium.
The collection amassed over a thousand pieces, some valued at just pennies and others much more, all taking up space in his office, lab and home. Some chests have not been opened for decades.
“This was not the place for any group,” he says, pointing to the right place—a wall-sized periodic table in the second-floor lobby of the Alchemy Building, lit from the inside by strings of LEDs that can be manipulated to illuminate groups of elements such as gases. Noble or to speak specifically of one element and the things in the cubicle. Take, for example, an antique domino in a nitrogen pod (which is in plastic) or a pair of sunglasses cut in half and stretched over praseodymium and neodymium cans (both elements are in the lenses).
“This is the place to be, because now one can show off each artifact, share in its joys, and tell a story in its context,” he says. “I wanted the screen to contain more than just metal bits and gas lights. I wanted to connect every element to the natural world, our daily lives, and the work we do in research labs, starting with gold-plated contacts, a bottle of Selsun Blue, fine metals, and premium reagents. to the unique research chemical compounds of our department members.”
But the task of bringing an interactive periodic table to UConn wasn’t quick and the idea wasn’t particularly unique.
Many universities, collectors, and private companies boast displays of the periodic table, and some have become almost a tourist attraction, such as the one at the University of Oklahoma that Bruckner visited during a long vacation many years ago, Bruckner says.
But when he conjured up the idea of bringing a gallery like this to UConn, he wanted it to be different. Usually, only a few examples of each item are shown in each compartment, keeping the 118 holes arranged but not actually representative of the usage range of each item.
“I wanted to include as many examples of weaving a dense texture as possible from as many sides of each element as possible,” Bruckner says. “Chemistry is the central science, and the periodic table holds it together.”
In 2017, not long after taking over as head of the department, and having aligned himself with Professor Emeritus Ule Müller-Westerhof as the main donor, Bruckner held the first talks with a European firm that specialized not only in preparing periodic table cases but also in providing samples for viewing.
Of course, Bruckner knew he needed only a fraction of the number of samples other places might fill holes in his collection, like an antique bedside alarm clock with radium-plated numbers glowing or a ball of volatile liquid bromine.
He also wanted the shape of the entire gallery to look different from the others, which was usually rectangular and made with strategically placed vaults to fill in the space around the irregular periodic table.
Cabinet maker Marcos Palomo of 118 Displays proposed a display in the form of the same periodic table and Brückner was sold. It will be crowned by a wall-mounted screen at the top, and two independent interactive kiosks will reserve it.
Over the next five years, when project approvals got hold of the pipeline, Mueller Westerhof died, his sister got his pledge, and the office of the Provost and the Bruckner family added additional funding.
One constant follower: Brückner continued to collect, now for a specific purpose.
“I dried, for example, Etsy for a very long time and found interesting specimens, such as europium-tinted glass. It was not advertised as europium-colored glass, but its color was exactly what I expected for European-colored glass – pink, a very unique pink hue I also found buttons made of this pink glass.
He mentioned the project to a graduate working at Boston Scientific who donated coronary stents and heart valve frames made of nickel-titanium alloy. He unsuccessfully asked local hospitals for an empty bottle of the gadolinium-based imaging agent, but eventually bought an entire bottle from a graduate school friend who is the co-director of the Imaging Center at Harvard Medical School.
“There are items out there from colleagues who passed long ago, there are items from current colleagues, there are items from alumni,” Bruckner says, noting that when he told people what he was doing, they were excited to be part of the story — his dentist introduced an existing dental implant on titanium.
“We have iron-nickel meteorites from outer space, stuff caught from the air, stuff from the ocean floor,” he says. “There is a piece of molten sand from the first nuclear explosion, the Trinity hydrogen bomb test in New Mexico. It could be said to have some radioactive fallout, and elements that are otherwise inaccessible or safe to handle.”
In the aluminum cube, Bruckner put the spoon he picked up when he was visiting the Eastern Bloc in Prague when he was 15: “I like to tell the story in my inorganic chemistry class that the first aluminum cutlery was given to the king from France because at that time people learned How to make elemental aluminum was more expensive than gold. If you want to be fancy, you have aluminum cutlery. Now, we have aluminum soda cans. Things change, and for me, aluminum cutlery is a link to that story.”
While there is a glass sugar bowl of uranium – a beautiful green – in the display, not all of the elements can be represented because they are radioactive and only small amounts of them have ever been made. These cubes bear only a representative image, think Albert Einstein for einsteinium or Enrico Fermi for fermium.
But other man-made elements that may be more mysterious to the layman are represented: “Americium, we have that in smoke detectors. There’s a bit of a source of americium in there, he says.”
With physically larger samples of some of the items in an off-screen reserve — a section of transatlantic cable filled with copper wire or a small but heavy slug of tungsten, for example — Bruckner says he has a bucket of show-and-tell items that he collects that can be used for a lesson. Fast when they visit the campus.
After all, he says, this is one of the goals of the project.
“I would also like it to be an educational tool,” he says. “It can be a hub for outreach activities for the general public. It is like a small museum for anyone from elementary school students to adults of any age. Anyone can find some item in the display that they can connect to and see the fun in that.”
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