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The Mystery of Matter

A project by Stephen Lyons

The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements is a multimedia project about one of the great adventures in the history of science: the long quest to understand what the world is made of – to identify, understand and organize the basic building blocks of matter. In a nutshell, the project is about the human story behind the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The centerpiece of the project is a three-hour documentary series that premiered on PBS in 2015. The Mystery of Matter introduces viewers to some of history’s most extraordinary scientists: Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, whose discovery of oxygen—and radical interpretation of it—led to the modern science of chemistry; Humphry Davy, who made electricity a powerful new tool in the search for elements; Dmitri Mendeleev, whose Periodic Table brought order to the growing gaggle of elements; Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking research on radioactivity cracked open a window into the atom; Harry Moseley, who used newly discovered X-rays to redefine the Periodic Table; and Glenn Seaborg, whose discovery of plutonium opened up a whole new realm of elements, still being explored today.

The Mystery of Matter shows not only what these scientific explorers discovered but also how, using actors to reveal the creative process through the scientists’ own words, and conveying their landmark discoveries through re-enactments shot with replicas of their original lab equipment. And knitting these strands together is host Michael Emerson, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor best known for his roles on Lost and Person of Interest.

While many TV documentaries have been produced on fields like astronomy, biology and physics, the science of chemistry has long been neglected by the popular media. As a result, chemistry teachers have very few quality video resources to use in the classroom. One of the goals of the Mystery of Matter project was to fill this gap by presenting a series that would appeal to a broad television audience and generate educational materials that would help chemistry teachers make the subject more exciting and accessible to their students.

Based on the comments received after the PBS broadcast, the series has succeeded on both counts, generating ecstatic reactions from ordinary viewers of all ages and backgrounds – and grateful praise from teachers. To see a selection of comments, go to: http://tinyurl.com/Mysteryofmattercomments

In addition to the broadcast series, the Mystery of Matter project includes an ambitious web site chock full of educational materials. There are biographical essays on the series’ seven major characters and key subjects like the Periodic Table and the discovery of the atomic structure. There’s a Teacher’s Guide designed to help teachers use the series to meet the latest science teaching standards. The entire PBS series is available as a collection of 60 short film clips (1-4 minutes each) for teachers who don’t have time to watch whole programs. And there’s a library of 32 short videos comprising more than five hours of additional chemistry programming beyond the television series. These videos draw on the footage, interviews, images and animations shot and collected for the broadcast series but also include much new material to present key chemistry concepts in entertaining ways. To learn more, please visit the website at www.mysteryofmatter.net.

Although the PBS series is complete, we’re still seeking funds to expand its educational applications. Our goal is to rise $75,000 to produce eight more teacher videos, spread the word about this educational resource among chemistry teachers around the world, and place the Mystery of Matter educational materials on other sites (PBS Learning Media and Annenberg Learner, for example) so that more teachers can discover and use them.

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