The elements; and the Owl and the Pussy Cat

The elements; and the Owl and the Pussy Cat

Where can you find an original Humphrey Davy miner’s safety lamp, Joseph Priestley’s glasses (Joseph Priestley, the discoverer or inventor of the fizzy drink)  and the illustrations of Edward Lear (including an owl, and a parrot named after him) all within a couple of rooms?

The answer is at the Royal Society  in London (Carlton Terrace – within 10 minutes’ walk of Charing Cross), free to visit and open during normal daytime hours. Some of the items above may be on display indefinitely, others are part of a special exhibition called Romantic Chemistry, which continues until June 2013.

Because many of the elements, and the Periodic Table which organizes them all, are a critical part of the GCSE Chemistry syllabus, this exhibition caught my attention when it opened, with its focus on a great age of discovery of new elements, coinciding with the  Romantic period in art and poetry (late 18th Century to early 19th). Elements identified within these few decades include Hydrogen, Zirconium, Titanium, Niobium, Palladium, Rhodium, Silicon and  Boron (I have listed them in the chronological order of their recognition).

Part of the charm of the exhibition lies in the handwritten notes or letters of the chemists that record their research. The language is invariably plain everyday English with a minimum of jargon. Henry Cavendish’s account of his experiment to obtain Hydrogen is beautifully legible, as is the handwriting of Jons Jacob Berzelius – who was Swedish, but wrote nevertheless impeccable English.
 
Edward Lear’s birds – both of the zoologically exact and the humorously imagined varieties – were in another room: the remains of a previous exhibition in 2012,  ‘Edward Lear and the Scientists’. His magnificent illustration of the Eastern Great Horned Owl  is juxtaposed with the famous drawing of the lyrical owl  strumming to the pussy cat on their romantic voyage (see below). But for the special union Edward Lear forges between exquisite observations of natural history and popular verse I cannot do better than present this link to the BBC