Kill or cure? It’s elementary at Wellcome Collection’s late event
Press release / Published: 14 March 2011
Wellcome Collection opens late on Friday 8 April for Elements, a spectacular night of chemical romance, intrigue and performance. We’ll be filling the whole building with arsenic, iodine, oxygen and mercury. Four elements: all have been used in medicine, yet each can be lethal. Bringing together beauty and danger, health and hazard, Elements runs from 19.00 to 23.00.
See your reflection in a deadly pool of mercury, as our quicksilver pools reveal the rippling beauty of this lethal element, and discover paintings full of mercury and arsenic, whose vermillion and green pigments rely on toxic compounds for their brilliance. Put arsenic on trial as a judge and prosecutor revisit famous cases of arsenic poisoning, from Napoleon to Mme Bovary, and call on the audience as witnesses and jury. Biogeochemist Andy Meharg will be on hand to talk about the historical prevalence and dangers of arsenic and its present-day abundance in the water supply of millions of people.
The freshest breath you are ever likely to take is on offer at our pure oxygen bar - our average inhalation carries a mere 21 per cent of the element. Once you've filled your lungs at the bar you can listen to biochemist and writer Nick Lane talk about the element's central role in life - and death. Andrew Szydlo will be running the chemical experiments that the earliest alchemists used to uncover oxygen, introducing visitors to the extraordinary world of Cornelius Drebbel and his mystery submarine.
Bathe in the light created by our four elements in artist Henny Burnett's multimedia installation, which uses candles burning oxygen, iodine halogen lamps, mercury vapour lamps and LEDs based on arsenic. There will be tales about the self-experimenting JS Haldane, and singer and pianist Virginia Firnberg will be bringing our elements together in song.
Food writer and self-styled gastronaut Stefan Gates will be blending anti-oxidising cocktails, and in the Iodine Messy Play Area, you'll find out how to tell both temperature and time with an element best known for its disinfecting properties.
Open yourself to the Elements at Wellcome Collection from 19.00 to 23.00 on Friday 8 April. Entry is free. Drop in anytime. Some talks and performances will be ticketed; tickets will be available on the night of the event only.
Meet our star elements
Arsenic is a semi-metal best known today for its regular appearance in murder mysteries. Arsenic compounds stimulate the metabolism and were once regarded as a cure-all. Their reputation continues to the present day, with the development of modern treatments for syphilis and leukaemia.
Iodine was discovered accidentally in 1813 when seaweed was employed to make saltpetre for gunpowder. Its shiny black crystals vaporize to form a beautiful violet gas. Its relatively mild disinfectant properties make it suitable for treating minor cuts. Today, rare isotopes of iodine are used in medical diagnosis and radiation therapy.
Mercury is one of the handful of chemical elements known in antiquity and the only liquid metal. Alchemists believed that it held the key to the transmutation of base metals into gold. Through the ages, mercury has had many uses - from ornamental garden pools to dental fillings. Today, it is banned from many applications because it is highly poisonous.
Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe and makes up one-fifth of the earth's atmosphere. Any change in this proportion - either up or down - would threaten humankind. It is highly reactive and is able to corrode metals and destroy natural organisms. Oxygen is thus regarded both as the stuff of life and as a hastener of ageing.
'Elements' is curated by Andrea Sella, Professor of Chemistry at UCL, and Hugh Aldersey-Williams, author of the new book 'Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements', published by Viking.