Periodic Table of the Elements: 2017


On 28 December 2016, I wrote a Tea Towel Blog called ‘New Years Resolutions’.  In it I resolved to have written a total of 400 Blogs about my tea towel collection by the end of 2017; I achieved this yesterday.  My blog about Borough Market was number 400.  So I thought number 401 should have a signifance or poignancy; what better tea towel than the only one I don’t have a clue about!  Oh, I know exactly when, where and why I bought it but I have no understanding, whatsoever, of the Periodic Table of the Elements except that it was originally devised in 1869 by a Russian called Dmitri Mendeleev (useful information in a Pub Quiz).  I understand that it has been added to since that date but I have no idea why he sat down, one day, and decided to draw a fancy chart.  I’ve seen this tea towel in a number of places of scientific interest like the Space Centre in Leicester but never could justify buying one, although I think it is very attractive.  Then in April this year I was in the Wellcome Collection, saw it and thought “That’s what I will buy Roger for his birthday”.  Roger is scientifically trained and works in water; Roger will know what it means and can explain it to his children.  But before I let it out of my hands, I had photographed it and written a blog.  It did cross my mind that this tea towel holds a lot of information that would be valuable if you were a ‘Pointless’ contestant!

The problem about the Periodic Table of the Elements, for me, is that I went to an all-girls convent school, from the age of 5 to 16.  It was very small; 270 pupils in total.  Teaching was mainly carried out by nuns so that the curriculum was somewhat limited.  Latin and Religious Knowledge were standard; there was not a single science topic on the curriculum, except for maths (I assume that maths counts as a science subject); no physics, no chemistry, no biology.  Therefore, in my education, the Periodic Table of the Elements never got a look-in; you were ok if you wanted to do needlework, art or all manner of history; French and Spanish but not German; English Language and Literature but not music; Geography but not Geology.  But we did do Economics; the nuns thought that was a bit radical but they had a new teacher who knew something about Economics, as well as her main subject of English.  I never did really work out whether the restrictions on the curriculum were more about the nuns’ expectations of what women would do with their lives once they left school or what nuns they could get hold of to teach different subjects.  I do know that no one was ever going to learn about Human Biology because it involved talking about the body, anymore than we would be allowed to go swimming because it meant exposing parts of the body in a swimsuit.

However, I balance the poverty of my early education with my love of, and delight in, the work of Tom Lehrer.  Tom Lehrer is an American musician, singer-song writer, satirist and performer, as well as a mathematician.  He was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s; by the 1970s he had retired from performing to go into teaching mathematics.  His classic work, which I can so clearly remember (and have just rediscovered on YouTube: 24/1/2012) is the Elemental Song (all the Elements on the Periodic Table put to music), performed to the Gilbert and Sullivan tune of ‘I am the very model of the modern major-general’, from the ‘Pirates of Penzance’.  It is my love of Tom Lehrer’s work that lay behind my desire for this tea towel, even though I don’t understand it (but I do recommend Readers listen to Tom Lehrer on YouTube or, if you prefer, Daniel Ratcliffe on the Graham Norton Show!).

On my last visit to London to see my specialist, I arranged to meet up with Leanne, a former student of mine who lives, and works, in London.  We decided to have a ‘light supper’ at Fortnum and Mason in St Pancras Station.  There was a couple of hours to spare, before I was due to meet up with Leanne, so I decided to go to Wellcome Collection on Euston Road.  I have passed this place on many occasions, since it opened in 2007, but always thought that it might be boring.  How wrong was I?  It is described as a museum for “the incurably curious, the London Museum that invites you to explore what it means to be human”.  This is a great, interactive museum with fascinating exhibits.  Henry Wellcome was a man fascinated by all things medical and was an inveterate collector; he amassed a huge collection of books, paintings and objects on the theme of the historical development of medicine worldwide, thus making the museum worth a visit.  The Wellcome Collection had a shop and a load of tea towels.  My trip was complete.  I hope Roger enjoyed his birthday present and I do feel that a photo of him actually enjoying it would be good in the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.

Click below to go to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum


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