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Literary stars unveil Imperialís unique periodic table

Thursday 30 June 2005

Writers Dr Oliver Sacks, Dr John Emsley and Sir Jonathan Miller visited Imperial College London on Friday 24 June to celebrate the re-launch of a chemical periodic table that contains every non-hazardous element in physical form.

Following restoration by technician Simon Turner, the table has returned to the foyer of the Department of Chemistry after spending a few years consigned to the basement during refurbishment.

Dr Oliver Sacks, Dr John Emsley, Sir Jonathan Miller and Professor Bill Griffith

Imperial's periodic table became the second of its kind in the world when it was created thirty years ago. It was set up by Professor Bill Griffith, (pictured far right with r to l, Dr John Emsley, Dr Oliver Sacks and Sir Jonathan Miller), now a Senior Research Investigator in the Department of Chemistry, together with carpenter Jim Beard, glassblower Arthur Madell and lab technician Roy Deavins.

Introducing Dr Sacks, Dr John Emsley, formerly science writer in residence at Imperial and the University of Cambridge and author of several books including Shocking History of Phosphorous, said: "Its rather nice that perhaps the world's most famous neurologist takes this interest in Chemistry.

"We know from his book Uncle Tungsten that that interest goes right back to his childhood in the 1940s, when apparently he was able to go to local chemists and buy things like concentrated sulphuric acid!"

Dr Sacks, author of The man who mistook his wife for a hat and Awakenings, said: "It is lovely to be here. I was in Alaska with Jonathan Miller over the weekend, unveiling a flying periodic table flown by a small plane to little villages all over Alaska to educate the people there."

Wearing a periodic table t-shirt, Dr Sacks demonstrated his lifelong fascination with the table by reading a passage from Uncle Tungsten. He described seeing the prototype for Imperial's table in the Science Museum as a child: "I could scarcely sleep for excitement the night after seeing the periodic table. I kept dreaming of it in the excited half-sleep of that night.

"The next day I could hardly wait for it to re-open and went to the top floor where the table was as soon as the doors open & I visited it as often as I could. I copied it into my exercise book, I carried it everywhere and now, 60 years later, I still have a copy on my person."

Dr Sacks was accompanied to the opening by Sir Jonathan Miller, satirist, co-founder of Beyond the Fringe and theatre and opera director. Uncle Tungsten describes how as youngsters, he and Dr Sacks caused an explosion in Highgate Ponds by throwing a pound of sodium metal into them.