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Chemistry professor drums the periodic table of elements ... literally

Jefferson College chemistry professor Wesley Whitfield plays the drums at a TEDx event the school organized in April 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Jefferson College chemistry professor Wesley Whitfield performed a percussive interpretation of the periodic table of elements at a TEDx event the school organized in April.

Since Wesley Whitfield was in high school, he’s loved chemistry. It’s why he became a chemistry professor at Jefferson College in Hillsboro.

But he also has a deep passion for music. Whitfield has been playing drums as a hobby for more than 20 years. Recently, he was able to combine his passion for chemistry and drumming in an April performance at Jefferson College’s TEDx event, “The Art of Science and the Science of Art.”

He came up with the idea while he was driving and listening to Holst’s “The Planets” on his radio.

“I thought, well [Holst’s] never been to the planets and yet he’s interpreting them,” Whitfield said. “And I thought, well no one’s ever interpreted the chemical elements via music.”

Whitfield said he felt compelled to see the idea through. At the time, Jefferson College was organizing a talent competition, and he decided that he would enter and drum his interpretation of the periodic table.

The periodic table lists the elements left to right. Elements are grouped in the same column as those that have similar levels of reactivity, which is how much energy the element's molecules release when they interact with other elements.

Whitfield noted that a certain pattern emerges if one looks at each element, one after the next, based on reactivity. In that sense, the table is similar to a musical arrangement.

“Compositions in music are periodic,” Whitfield said. “There’s a crescendo, decrescendo; melodies change and come back and start over. And I thought, well I could play loud, quiet, frenetic, smooth, calm, messy somehow to differentiate elements that are reactive and those that are not.”

In the TEDx performance, Whitfield sat at the side of the stage with his drum kit, next to a large projection screen that scrolled through each element, by order of its number. He played a ruckus when highly reactive elements, such as sodium and oxygen popped up. But then, he held the cymbal to silence it and convey nonreactivity when the projection screen showed noble gases, such as argon and neon.

“I love the idea of factual stuff; I love science so much,” Whitfield said. “But the art side of me just kept breaking out as I got older, and I think what I want the periodic table drumming thing to do is to show that you can actually combine both.”

Whitfield often gets mixed reactions to the percussive interpretation of the elements, from “people being blown away” to total indifference. But he hopes that the performance might inspire others to appreciate chemistry as much as he does.

“It’s like LEGOs, it’s like Tinkertoys,” Whitfield said. “You can get this excitement and you’ve got these little weird things that don’t make sense individually. We may have needed the whole time and we didn’t know it. So I want more people to be the LEGO-makers.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.