Volunteers at Wayne State University in Detroit had been braving the elements for hours on an October morning. The wind chapped cheeks and numbed fingers as volunteers wrangled giant blue tarps with the names, symbols, and atomic numbers of chemical elements painted on them.
When gusts kicked up, the workers would joke that they were building the world’s largest kite. They were actually attempting to build the world’s largest periodic table. And they had competition.
Four days earlier, on the opposite side of Michigan, at Grand Valley State University, another group of crafty science enthusiasts had assembled what it believed was the world’s largest periodic table. The conditions were much milder for those volunteers—they constructed the table on an indoor athletic field—but they came up against their own set of obstacles. One element tile, painted across some glued-together tablecloths, went MIA in storage. Another was held up in transit from India, leaving organizers wondering if they would be able to complete the table.
But they did. Both groups did. Michigan became the proud birthplace of two gigantic periodic tables within a week. The timing wasn’t an accident, either.
It was National Chemistry Week during the International Year of the Periodic Table. Although the groups hatched their schemes independently of each other, they shared the same drive to do something huge to get lots of people—and not just chemists—talking about chemistry and the iconic table.
“That was part of our mission, to get people excited about chemistry,” says Grand Valley State’s Michelle DeWitt. And the groups felt that if they were going to get people really excited, it wasn’t enough to simply go big with periodic tables. They would have to be the biggest.
This ambition paid dividends early, at least on the outreach front. On the morning of Mole Day, Oct. 23 (abbreviated as 10/23 on calendars in the US, resembling the 1023 part of Avogadro’s number), a local news crew arrived at Wayne State as volunteers were staking down massive blue tarps—9 by 12 m—with element names, symbols, and atomic numbers painted in white. The crew came to talk with Sue White, a lab manager, and Charlie Fehl, a biochemist, who are both advisers to the American Chemical Society student affiliates group at Wayne State. They were also both driving forces behind the giant periodic table.
Fox 2 Detroit’s Josh Landon told viewers that when completed, the table would have all 103 elements. White heard the error and saw an opportunity. “They actually added new ones since you went to high school,” she told Landon, after explaining that there are now 118 elements. “The periodic table has gotten bigger and more exciting.”
By the end of the day, drones and news helicopters had circled the periodic table at Wayne State, which covered an area larger than three American football fields. CBS News shared a photo of the table on Twitter with its 7 million followers, as did ABC’s World News Tonight with its 1.4 million followers.
White doesn’t think this would have happened if the group had taken a less ambitious, more conventional approach—for example, inviting the media to a lecture series for the International Year of the Periodic Table. “Nobody would have shown up,” White tells C&EN. “Nobody would be saying, ‘Hey, did you know today was Mole Day?’ ”
The exposure that periodic table received is somewhat surprising considering how tight lipped the group had been about its plans. Volunteers kept details on a need-to-know basis until they felt confident they would successfully build the table on their Mole Day deadline. The first on-the-record intel made its way to C&EN just 5 days ahead of time.
Monique Wilhelm, a lab supervisor at the University of Michigan–Flint, came up with the idea to build the world’s largest periodic table. Over the summer, at a regional ACS meeting in Midland, Michigan, she found a coconspirator in Wayne State’s White.
The two discreetly enlisted further help from chemistry clubs at their schools, as well as Lawrence Technological University, the University of Detroit Mercy, and the University of Michigan–Dearborn. The Detroit Local Section of the ACS also supported the effort, contributing a few thousand dollars for supplies, which was added to about $5,000 raised by the clubs.
By the time the planning and fundraising came together, the group had about 2 months to make all the elements, which they also did with an impressive level of secrecy. Over two weekends during the fall, volunteers from all five schools would spend entire days at Wayne State University painting tarps in a classic clandestine location: a parking garage.
It’s a weird thing to try to explain to other people, that you spent weekends in a parking garage painting elements, says Lynnette Harris, a junior at the University of Michigan–Flint and president of its chemistry club. “I wouldn’t change it, though,” says Harris, who carpooled some 100 km to Wayne State with classmates to paint the elements, helping one another with orgo homework during the drive. “I had so much fun doing it.”
The ACS Western Michigan Local Section adopted a different approach when it came to building its periodic table at Grand Valley State University, about 300 km west of Wayne State.
About a year before its periodic table came together, the Western Michigan section started a website, visible to the world, in which volunteers from anywhere could claim the elements that they wanted to design. The local section provided instructions on what information each element needed—a name, symbol, atomic number, and atomic weight—and how big each tile should be. Beyond those constraints, groups had a fair amount of latitude when it came to painting the elements. For example, the Pokémon Club at Grand Valley State claimed polonium and made the o in Po a Poké Ball, the famous red-and-white ball used to catch Pikachu and other critters.
And it wasn’t just Pokémon masters who got involved. All sorts of clubs and groups at Grand Valley State donated time, paint, and tablecloths: the equestrian team, the financial aid office, the Milton E. Ford LGBT Resource Center. This was by design.
Contributions also came from outside campus. Corporations including Amway and Thermo Fisher Scientific sent elements. Forty schools from 12 US states sent elements. A retired chemistry teacher in Texas saw the effort and got involved. Elements came in from Canada and India.
Unlike the Wayne State group, the Western Michigan section needed to advertise its plan in order for it to work. The section set up a website, started a Facebook discussion, and sent out newsletters. DeWitt, the lead lab supervisor at Grand Valley State, went on the local news to run chemistry demos and promote the periodic table event on TV. “Afterwards, one of the producers told me, ‘That was so exciting. We should have chemists on every month,’ ” DeWitt says.
When the table came together at the section’s annual National Chemistry Week celebration on Oct. 19, 500 people saw it in person, and many more heard about it on the news. Time magazine proclaimed that chemistry had a good week because of Michigan scientists who built a football-field-sized periodic table.
So did either group set a world record? Guinness World Records, the popular authority on the world’s superlatives, told C&EN that it does not currently monitor a record for largest periodic table. And the teams told us that getting Guinness to formally recognize their efforts requires a prohibitively hefty fee.
Still, the groups have a lot to be proud of, according to Jimmy Franco, an organic chemist at Merrimack College who helped lead an effort to paint the world’s largest periodic table in 2012. “The two attempts to break the record for the world’s largest periodic table are amazing endeavors,” Franco says. “Both periodic tables are extremely impressive, not only in the size and scope of the projects but also in the way they were able to engage the community.”