The Mystery of Matter

The Mystery of Matter Video Library

Welcome to the Mystery of Matter Video Library, a collection of 32 short videos comprising more than five hours of original material beyond the PBS broadcast series.

These videos draw on the interviews, re-enactments, animations and photographs we shot and collected for the PBS series to explore different aspects of the story of the search for the elements. Included are 22 “teacher videos” designed specifically for chemistry teachers; they cover key chemical concepts like the Periodic Table, the structure of the atom and the Conservation of Matter in more detail than we had time for in the TV series. Most of these videos are 4-10 minutes long, though there are a few longer ones in which the subject matter demanded more time. We’ve divided the longer videos into chapters so teachers and students have the option to watch them in short segments.

Some of the longer videos are meant to be watched instead of, rather than in addition to, the corresponding part of the PBS series. For example, the videos Mysteries of the Periodic Table, Part 3: Beyond Uranium (27:06); Into the Atom, Part 4: The Atom Splits (10:18), and A Chemist Goes to War (15:30) all cover aspects of Glenn Seaborg’s story. But the first goes into more detail about the discovery of the transuranic elements and what it reveals about the scientific process; the second reveals more about the discovery of nuclear fission, including the key role played by German physicist Lise Meitner; and the third delves further into Seaborg’s involvement in the war effort, including his thoughts on having helped create the atomic bomb. Depending on what you want your students to learn, you may want to have them watch one of these videos instead of the second half of Episode 3. Similarly, there are videos on each of the other characters that emphasize different aspects of their stories than the television series does.

The remaining 10 videos are “general interest” pieces that do not address key chemistry concepts but may still be of interest to teachers of chemistry (and other subjects), because they show chemistry at work in social and historical context.

To watch each video, simply click on the title in red.

Teacher Videos

Mysteries of the Periodic Table (a 5-video series about puzzling aspects of the table)

  1. A Reflection of the Atom (6:54 in 4 chapters)
    The reason behind the orderly arrangements of the elements in the Periodic Table remained a mystery for more than 50 years, until the discovery of protons, neutrons and electrons revealed that the table’s structure reflects the anatomy of the atom itself.

  2. The Rare Earths (8:34 in 3 chapters)
    The rare earth elements, or lanthanides, frustrated chemists for generations until physicist Harry Moseley used x-ray spectroscopy to sort them out. Only later was it discovered that it was their unusual electron shells that made the rare earths so difficult to tell apart.

  3. Beyond Uranium (27:06 in 6 chapters)
    In the last 75 years, scientists have added more than 25 artificial elements to the Periodic Table, extending it far beyond the last naturally occurring element, uranium. The creation of the “transuranic” elements is a fascinating story that reveals much about the scientific process – including scientists’ tendency to be blinded by their expectations.

  4. The Noble Gases (9:14 in 3 chapters)
    The discovery of the noble gases initially posed a threat to the Periodic Table, then a powerful confirmation of Mendeleev’s Periodic Law. The gases’ reluctance to combine with other elements had kept them hidden in plain sight for centuries. But the underlying reason for their inertness eventually explained much about chemistry.

  5. Isotopes (11:12 in 3 chapters)
    For more than 60 years after the creation of the Periodic Table, chemists were baffled by cases where a heavier element came before a lighter one in the table (e.g., cobalt before nickel). The puzzle was solved only after the discovery of the neutron revealed that different atoms of the same element can have different atomic weights: isotopes.

Into the Atom (a 4-video series about the discovery of atomic structure)

  1. Atoms Have Parts (radioactivity) (18:46 in 7 chapters)
    The discovery of radioactivity by Marie and Pierre Curie revealed that atoms – long thought to be the smallest units of matter – must have smaller pieces inside, still awaiting discovery.

  2. The Atom’s First Pieces (electron/nucleus) (10:44 in 4 chapters)
    Physicist J.J. Thomson discovered the first of the atom’s pieces – the tiny, negatively charged electron – in 1897. Thirteen years later, his former student, Ernest Rutherford, discovered that all of the atom’s positive charge, and most of its mass, are concentrated in a tiny central core he called the nucleus.

  3. Numbering the Elements (atomic number/proton/neutron) (17:06 in 7 chapters)
    In 1912, one of Rutherford’s graduate students, Harry Moseley, used x-ray spectroscopy to discover that each element is defined by its atomic number – the positive charge on its nucleus. This led to Rutherford’s discovery of the proton, the particle responsible for this charge. And in 1932, another of Rutherford’s protégés, James Chadwick, discovered the final piece of the atom: the chargeless particle called the neutron.

  4. The Atom Splits (nuclear fission) (10:18 in 5 chapters)
    Bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons to learn more about their structure, physicist Enrico Fermi discovered what he thought were the first elements beyond uranium. But German scientists repeating his experiments found that his results actually showed the atom had split in half, in a way no one had thought possible, releasing huge amounts of energy. Within six years, the discovery of nuclear fission led to the atomic bomb.

The Discovery of Air (4:54)
Biographer Steven Johnson and historian Seymour Mauskopf explain how air – “the empty space between things” – became a subject scientists thought was worth studying.

Nature’s Restorative (5:27)
Biographer Steven Johnson describes how Joseph Priestley, with help from Benjamin Franklin, discovered the role plants play in keeping air breathable.

The New Language of Chemistry (5:46)
How Antoine Lavoisier and his followers invented a new chemical language, replacing the confusing names leftover from alchemy with a clear nomenclature in which a chemical’s name reveals what it’s made of. It’s the chemical language we still use today.

The Conservation of Matter (15:25 in 4 chapters)
As he struggled to amass evidence for a discovery that threatened to topple chemistry’s reigning theory, Antoine Lavoisier invented a powerful laboratory technique based on the principle now called the Conservation of Matter: The same amount of matter exists before and after each chemical reaction – what comes out has to weigh exactly as much as what goes in. More than two centuries later, this principle remains a bedrock of chemistry.

Who Discovered Oxygen? (12:38 in 5 chapters)
Historians have long agreed that the discovery of oxygen marked the birth of modern chemistry, but they’re still debating who should get credit for the discovery. Should it be the man who first discovered the gas (Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele), the man who first published the discovery (British minister Joseph Priestley), or the man who understood its true significance (French tax administrator Antoine Lavoisier)? The debate raises interesting questions about the meaning of “scientific discovery.”

What is an Element? (17:37 in 5 chapters)
The Periodic Table is such a familiar image that few people actually stop to ask: What is an element? It’s a surprisingly difficult question – one that took many scientists, working over many centuries, to answer.

Electricity and Matter (18:32 in 8 chapters)
Chemist Humphry Davy was the first to sense that electricity is an essential property of matter, but it took more than a century for other scientists to figure out how electricity serves as the glue that holds all matter together.

The Legend of Mendeleev’s Dream (4:02)
One oft-told tale about the Periodic Table is that it came to Dmitri Mendeleev in a dream. But the historical record shows that the table resulted from hard work and struggle. Mendeleev made many mistakes on his way to creating his masterpiece.

Chemical Solitaire (4:45)
Some scholars dispute the legend that Dmitri Mendeleev arrived at the Periodic Table by playing a kind of “chemical solitaire” with cards on which he had written the names and weights of the elements. But the card game is a good analogy for how Mendeleev did build his table.

Other Discoverers of the Periodic Table (9:41)
While Dmitri Mendeleev gets most of the credit for creating the Periodic Table, five other men sensed a hidden order among the elements before he did. He gets the credit because only he was bold enough to make detailed predictions about the elements missing from his table.

A Woman in a Man’s World (12:06 in 7 chapters)
Marie Curie faced enormous obstacles in pursuing a career in science. But her tenacity in overcoming those obstacles left a profound legacy and inspired generations of later female scientists.

Moseley’s Brilliant Experiment(11:59 in 4 chapters)
While others were using X-ray diffraction to study the spacing of atoms in crystals, British physicist Harry Moseley used Bragg’s Law to determine the X-ray spectra of the elements. His work led to the discovery that each element is defined by the number of protons in its nucleus: its atomic number.

A Tale of Two Half-Lives (4:16)
Physicists David Kaiser and Jim Gates explain the concept of half-life – the time it takes for half a sample of a radioactive element to decay into stabler elements. This measure of longevity has a big effect on the usefulness of an element, as neptunium and its neighbor plutonium illustrate.

General Interest Videos

A Momentous Encounter (3:51)
Biographer Steven Johnson describes how a meeting with Benjamin Franklin led to a lifelong friendship – and inspired Joseph Priestley to become a scientist in his own right.

Lavoisier’s Better Half (4:13)
Once a week, Antoine Lavoisier welcomed others into his lab to take part in chemistry experiments, but his most important collaborator was his young wife, Marie Anne.

Antoine Lavoisier: American Ally (4:20)
As director of the government munitions bureau, Antoine Lavoisier developed the French gunpowder that helped the American colonists turn the tide in the Revolutionary War.

Davy’s Greatest Invention (10:43)
As a wildly popular lecturer at London’s Royal Institution, Davy became chemistry’s first great showman – and created the role of scientist as public figure.

Davy’s Greatest Failure (4:55)
With his attention diverted by electricity, lecturing and discovering new elements, Davy failed to follow up on own observation that nitrous oxide dulls pain, delaying the adoption of anesthesia for 40 years and condemning thousands to needless surgical pain.

A Few Minutes with Oliver Sacks (10:43)
For his legions of fans, a few minutes with the late Oliver Sacks, talking about his beloved Periodic Table, drawn from our 2012 interview for The Mystery of Matter.

The Element Mendeleev Never Accepted (4:50)
Dmitri Mendeleev’s grasp of chemistry was so great that he could accurately predict the properties of three of the “missing” elements in his Periodic Table. But there was one new element Mendeleev could never accept: radium.

The Radium Craze (5:34)
Radium’s magical ability to glow in the dark inspired a rush of radium-laced products that promised to cure ailments of all sorts ... but which ultimately did more harm than good.

Changing the Role of Scientists in War (5:14)
When physicist Harry Moseley was killed during World War I at the age of 27, it prompted Britain and other countries to rethink the role of scientists in war. In future wars, scientists would serve far from the front, doing research on things like code-breaking, radar and the atomic bomb.

A Chemist Goes to War (15:30)
Four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Seaborg moves to Chicago to head a Manhattan Project team responsible for developing a method for generating enough plutonium for a bomb.


Writer and Producer
   Stephen Lyons

   Raoul Rosenberg
   Jessie Beers-Altman
   Brittany Bellamy

Website Design
   Bruce Walker

These videos were made possible by grants from:
   The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
   The Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation
   The Wyncote Foundation

All re-enactments are drawn from the PBS series The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements

   Michael Emerson

   Muffie Meyer and Stephen Lyons

Director of Photography
   Gary Henoch

Production Designer
   Katha Seidman

Line Producer
   Michael Bowes

Associate Director
   Richard Brick

Costume Designers
   Andrew Poleszak
   Candice Donnelly

Hair & Make-Up Designers
   Joe Rossi
   Denise O’Brien

Historic Instruments/Scientific Consulting
   Antiques of Science & Technology

   Pixeldust Studios
   Handcranked Productions
   Raoul Rosenberg
   James Harvey

    APM Music
    OBT Music

Production Supervisor
   Vladimir Minuty

Technical Supervisor
   Wilson Chao

Senior Production Executive
   Aida Moreno

Executive Producer/Project Director
   Stephen Lyons

For a complete list of credits, click on The Series, above.

The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements
was produced by Moreno/Lyons Productions LLC.

Major funding for The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements was provided by the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin. Additional funding provided by The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, dedicated to strengthening America’s future through education.

Support for the development of The Mystery of Matter project was provided by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, The Otto Haas Charitable Trust and The Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation.

Support for The Mystery of Matter website and educational applications was provided by the Wyncote Foundation,The Dreyfus Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

All support for The Mystery of Matter was administered by Filmmakers Collaborative.

The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements is a production of Moreno/Lyons Productions in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting, which are solely responsible for its content. The series was filmed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with the support of the Massachusetts Film Office.
© 2015 Moreno/Lyons Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

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