Chemistry: A Volatile History
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Chemistry: A Volatile History

Ratings: 7.17/10 from 36 users.

Chemistry: A Volatile HistoryThe explosive story of chemistry is the story of the building blocks that make up our entire world - the elements. From fiery phosphorous to the pure untarnished lustre of gold and the dazzle of violent, violet potassium, everything is made of elements - the earth we walk on, the air we breathe, even us. Yet for centuries this world was largely unknown, and completely misunderstood.

In this three-part series, professor of theoretical physics Jim Al-Khalili traces the extraordinary story of how the elements were discovered and mapped. He follows in the footsteps of the pioneers who cracked their secrets and created a new science, propelling us into the modern age.

In the final part, Professor Al-Khalili uncovers tales of success and heartache in the story of chemists' battle to control and combine the elements, and build our modern world. He reveals the dramatic breakthroughs which harnessed their might to release almost unimaginable power, and he journeys to the centre of modern day alchemy, where scientists are attempting to command the extreme forces of nature and create brand new elements.

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Genevive Bjorn
8 years ago

Where can I buy a copy?

Charles Darwin
9 years ago

""""" science is the eternal struggle against ignornace"""" Albert Einstein....

10 years ago

Can anybody offer me a detail summary for the documentary?
Thanks A LOT!!!!!!!!

10 years ago

When will the full video be available? We need to view it this break for our Chem 15.0 class. Thanks so much!

11 years ago

this doc has been featured for ever and i never watched it before today, and i regret it... not watching it before ;)))

i'm glad i wasn't born in the time people spoke of false things like alchemy or ''flogistine'' in shcools... or the way they thought about light and calories was hilarious...

11 years ago

If you like science and materials ... A MUST SEE. Brillant, Fun and Educational all at once. Just a delight.

12 years ago

This is one of my most favorite docs. I really learned a lot and I was interested enough to go look- up things I didn't know. I also love the host.

12 years ago

The only negative is the lack of explanation of why elements were given particular names. eg: Oxygen means acid giver because Lavoisier believed it made acid. There is no mention of any such explanations.

Arnold Vinette
12 years ago

Excellent documentary on chemistry from history to present! So much research went into this project. Very appreciated!

I highly recommend this documentary on Chemistry: A volatile history. So informative.

At the end of this series I now know why so much money has been spent on Fermi Lab in the United States and the new Cern Particle Accelerator in Europe. There is a real quest underway to not only make new elements heavier than uranium, but also perhaps to transform one element into another.

The age old quest to transform lead into gold has not ended. If successful the Cern Particle Accelerator could actually pay for itself by changing huge quantities of lead into gold or other more valuable elements. Very interesting with regards to what is potentially really happening at these high particle accelerators.

The history of chemistry in this series is very interesting and will no doubt motivate thousands of young people to pursue chemistry courses and careers in university.

What I enjoyed most about the series was learning about the dedication and single mindedness of the various individuals who would make the scientific discoveries after years of dedicated reasearch, thinking, tinkering, and then sudden insight and clarity. This really seems to be a trait of many men and some women who work endless hours to understand and solve a difficult problem.

It is nice to know that I am not alone in this singular drive to realize a goal no matter how difficult it is.

Arnold Vinette
Ottawa, Canada

Gunnar Reiersen
12 years ago

I agree that the BBC produces some excellent documentaries (this one was particularly good), but PBS has produced brilliant ones as well. IMHO the best of the Nova series of documentaries (for example) rival some of BBC's best.

Gunnar Reiersen
12 years ago


It was Rutherford who first figured out that an atom is mostly empty space. How he figured this out was absolutely brilliant. Rather than explain to you how he figured that out myself, I would encourage you to google "Rutherford" on the internet and find out the nature of his experiments. If you have a real interest in science and want to understand how it works, you will be glad you did.

I also highly recommend the book "The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science" by Isaac Asimov. The book is somewhat dated now, but Asimov did an excellent job of explaining to us laymen the history of science in general and how major discoveries in all fields of science came about (including Rutherford's experiments), without talking down to the reader. Most public libraries should have a copy. Be sure you get the latest available edition. It is admittedly a very big book, but I could hardly put it down once I started reading it. I have read it several times over the years.

12 years ago

Wonderfuly done. Quite possible the best documentary so far i've viewed. KInd of reminded me of a program I use to watch on PBS called the World of Chemistry before catching the bus in the morning for high school( it's been over 20+ years). Keep them coming.

12 years ago

Wow that was so interesting!!!

I'm so grateful for Documentaries.

Last year I switched from a Science Degree to an Arts Degree, Thanks to Documentaries I can still learn some Science and I don't have to limit my learning to Arts only, There is so much more.

Thanks and Take Care. :)

Pedro the Swift
12 years ago

Hello Long time viewer (2 weeks) first time talker, just wanted to say hi thanks for the doc's and im glad the army made the internet so i could watch free doc's :D

12 years ago

@ KristophKP
OK thanks, I get the basketball in the church metaphor I'm just wondering how people know this. Dont know about probability density clouds I'll look into it

I've realised the painfully obvious fact that there has to be a distance between the electrons due to their being of the same charge so they will repel each other, at the same time as being drawn to the nucleus with its positive charge, hence them forming the shells around the nucleus, any more electrons will be atrracted to the atom but be repelled a certain distance from the electrons already there forming the next shell etc.
This leads me to assume there must be some kind of mathematical formula for the distance the electrons keep between each other which would explain why there are constant numbers of possible electrons in each shell. I'm sure an accurate model could be made at some point with this in mind, it may not be too far from the reaches of what we already know.

12 years ago

@ nick_kcin

You're not being thick at all. The kinds of questions that you're asking are important ones and no single person in this world can draw you an atom and conclusively say that every atom looks like what he has drawn. This is due to the fact that electrons are very transient and move around a LOT. Ever hear of probability density clouds? They're an important concept in understanding that electrons can be at any place around the nucleus. The higher the energy of the electron usually means that it's more likely to be found farther away rather than closer.

Picture the inside of a large church. Imagine that you're standing in this church in the middle, and that at your feet there's a basketball. That's your nucleus. If you were to look up at the ceiling and the walls, that is where you'd find the electrons "zipping" around. The whole church is your atom. (I won't get into the fact that electrons are standing waves because that's beyound the scale of your questions.)

There's a lot of space in an atom. Just plain old "empty" space. That's a concept that you're going to have to wrap your head around.

As for the attraction between electrons and the nucleus, gravity, as you pointed out, serves as a poor comparison. To tell you the truth I'm not comfortable with my own explanation of why electrons don't smash into nuclei so I'll leave it to someone else.

On a side note, something that I've always found interesting is something that a professor once told me. He said that if all atoms were to line up just right, if you pushed again them your hand would go through the material. Whether or not this is possible is hard to measure--the odds approach 1 in infinity.

christian cage
12 years ago

Beautiful documentary. Made me realize just how closely are physics and chemistry related.

12 years ago

ok, but these are oppositely charged particles, hence the reason they come together to make the atom in the first place. I just cant grasp why they are attracted to each other to a certain point but stop short and form rings of electrons, i can only picture it in such a way that they are drawn right up to the nucleus which apparently isnt true.

it cant be like the gravitational pull of planets in a solar system because the planets continue to rotate at a constant distance thanks to not being disturbed by other s@#$ banging into them as atoms have to deal with, and the force of gravity doesnt make a solid mass of solar system between the planets. or is it like that in some way? it certainly looks similar judging by most impressions shown, the question is just how accurate they are, how did they come to this common model everyone has accepted?

forgive me if I seem a bit thick with some of this stuff I dont really know a whole lot about a whole lot but hey if you dont ask you dont learn

12 years ago

to nick_kcin

it is all about charge, i guess. it is the same as pressing magnets with same poles together. you feel resistance.

I recall an example, to "compare" powers of electric and gravity energy. when someones jumps from a building and he is accelerating toward the earth, thats gravity. what you see when he lands is the consequence of electric resistane :D

it is empty, because they did not find anything else there... i guess. But it is not so easy as to picture an electron as a tennis ball, from the little I know it is more of an tennis ball cloud, with the ball being with highest propability in its orbital

12 years ago

Can someone please explain how its known that most of the atom is empty space?

I've been trying to visualize the world on an atomic level and certain things just don't quite make sense for me, like the idea of 'solidness' coming from what is a predominantly empty space, I was considering a theory that perhaps electrons arent small at all, they're much larger than the nucleus despite being much lighter, and the reason you have a certain number is that's all that can physically fit in each of the shells:

You have the comparatively high gravitational force of an atomic nucleus which attracts 2 electrons which are much lighter, but so much bigger only 2 will fit up against each other on either side of nucleus, then you may get another 8 can fit around that, another 18 can make up the next layer and so on.

I'm not sure if the numbers would work out with evenly sized electrons, wouldn't be too hard to test considering you could do it with tennis balls or something, but either way the impression I got was this cant be true because its 100% certain that there is empty space in between, how has this been figured out?

Oh and one final point, s@#$ is amazing man. amazing.

Achems Razor
12 years ago

@Charles B:

Element of the human soul? it is energy, like electricity, we are walking capacitors, no?

Charles B.
12 years ago

A fantastic Series! Episode 3 is difficult to watch and you have to manually advance it or backup to get it to play right (for me at least) all the way to the end.

I wonder what the element of the human soul is?

Charles B.
12 years ago


Who didn't play with mercury as a kid?!? I loved the stuff! Just roll it around in your hands until it disappears! Obviously absorbed into the skin, as I know now. Hope I didn't do too much of that.

What makes matters worse is that I come from a mining community in Oregon. We haven't had . . . . well, I take that back we STILL DO have active minors there, but the lakes are so mercury-filled you can't eat the fish. Or at least not very many of them. Scary eah? I still ate some of the trout.

12 years ago

lol I wrote that post before I watched the vid. Just watch Part 3 ben, it goes into quite a bit of detail about it.

12 years ago

@ ben

There are 92 naturally occurring elements, which are created by stars. But scientists have created heavier elements, starting with neptunium (neptune comes after uranus in the solar system, those scientists think they're so clever) in 1940. Some of these elements are very valuable, for example plutonium goes for about $4000/gram and californium $60,000,000/gram (at least they were in 2008, I'm just ripping this off wiki). But once you get up to rutherfordium (104) and heavier, they decay so quickly that they currently serve no purpose other than bragging rights. I believe they are up to element 118 now.

12 years ago

Awesome series, really enjoyed it!

I have a quick question, hopefully someone can answer it for me.
He explains how there is definitely only 92 elements in the universe because atomic numbers are whole and uranium is last on the table with the number 92, so there is no room left for anymore elements.
But I don't understand how they know uranium is the last? Couldn't they find another element that comes after it?


Dave G Mackay
12 years ago

Your Docmentaries are outstanding - I missed out on the Saturday movie on Tv Ontario.

12 years ago

@Raged I must agree. The BBC makes the best documentaries and I have seen a bit of them. They are almost always well made, incredibly witty and written with everyone in mind.
Its quite a reputation. Now when I see BBC, I know that at the very least, the doc is going to be interesting.

12 years ago

This documentary is great for the unscientific or uncurious and perhaps a stimulating film for children. Unfortunately, for the rest of us it is depressingly lacking in the details. I had to quit after getting tired of seeing the great demonstrations and not getting any explanations on how they worked. Take this as a warning.

12 years ago

Nice simple doc that gives a general overview of the timeline of early chemistry.

On a sidenote: I thought it was interesting when they spoke of phlogiston. I never even heard of that before. Although it strikes a remarkable resemblance to what modern day physics calls dark matter and dark energy ;)

I think dark matter/energy is just a temporary bookmark/place holder until the real truth is discovered...just like phlogiston was.

12 years ago

@Raged i have to agree with your sentiments, the british do make rather good documentaries and the thing i love about them is that they dont have the sensationalised voice in most american ones. Their british accent (myself having a hybrid austalian one which i have tried with all efforts to remove) is very good the american one is good as well but God do i hate when they put a dark overtone to sensationalise it, it doesnt add anything.
Personally i think professor jim al khalili is one of the best comunicators in britain and almost all his documentaries since 2007 have been excellent.

12 years ago

As an English man I am so proud of the BBC. They make truly stunning documentaries. To think that successive governments have wanted to break this institution up. It can make even the most seemingly boring of subjects fascinating to watch. Top class documentary.

12 years ago

o Vlatko
Guy, this site is wild, for years i searched for docs the old way of googling stuff. Well anyways I've been reading comments from you and other regulars, and you people are seriously good people...
Well anyways I'm 32 and from Canada, trying to figure out how to build a magnetic motor, and have watched anything to do with Tesla and his work, you do have some here.
Long story short, I met people at li-ion Motors who are trying there hand at electric cars which is good, I presented them with the idea and they know about it, but it was like looking at a deer stuck in the head lights of a car.
I live in Calgary Canada, HQ's for all the oil company's in my country, (I find it scary here, I'm from Toronto) the streets are nearly paved in gold here and this idea of the magnetic motor needs to be more promoted. I'm trying to build something, youtube is a joke when it comes to showing the every day man how to build it.

and those other guys like connie, Hate machine, Achems Razor

Hey, hows everybody doing.

Peace & Regards

12 years ago

That was f**cking sweet. Made me want to do chemistry again, which I haven't really cared about since high school.

13 years ago

Wonderfully entertaining and informative (for a layperson such as myself). I love the quick pace of this documentary and how the seemingly boring work of balancing chemical equations is given it's proper due as the energizing realization that chemistry is what we're all made of.

13 years ago

The 92 elements of the periodic table did not emerge from a simple identification as we can see them now in their extracted appearance. From Hydrogen to Uranium these elements had been trough a revolution of rough course of experimentation by early thinkers and scientist who pioneered the steps towards breaking the ignorance that would make mankind truly an intelligent specie,the kind that is capable of knowing and manipulating its environment for the advancement of his race.We are very lucky to have with us the early chemist and scientist who like, the genius Albert Einstien whacked their brains and sacrificed their time for half their lives to make the shortcut towards gaining the very important tool,"knowledge of quantum physics and to the macro elemental existence of the known universe." The rest of mankind has to survive in its race towards the cosmos.The signs of time is undoubtedly apparent,the earth is consumed by mankind's waste,pollutants and solid waste.Therefore man has to leave this planet and live somewhere in the universe.Be it early or late mans journey to seed the universe is soon to begin.

Achems Razor
13 years ago

@ Bodd:

Thank you for your concern.
But I have no medical problems, or any medical syndromes.

As a matter of fact I was in the medical field.

13 years ago

To: Achems Razor

You should see a specialist about that, perhaps get checked out. My father used to tell stories about playing in asbestos as a child, 5 years ago at the age of 55 he was diagnosed with lung cancer more than likly due to over exposure to the asbestos. Better to be safe then sorry.

Just a thought....

13 years ago


Not enough time to finish this fine doc...have to take my daughter to the movies.

13 years ago

Oh Yavanna,

You recommend everything!

Achems Razor
13 years ago

Finished watching this doc.

Great doc! Brought to mind when I was a kid , played with liquid mercury from thermometers.
Rolled the mercury around in my bare hands, Scary!

13 years ago

There are actually 3 whole episodes Vlatko (sort of like the cell series). They're all under the same user on youtube, and they also have playlists links to all of them. I'm not sure if you linked all of them or not (I already watched this series from this very user, hehe).

GREAT series too! It's comprehensive presentations like this that makes learning about science very enjoyable. It always amazes me how some of the neatest discoveries in science have been from the simplest (and at times even weird) experiments, like discovering phosphorus through the reduction of urine.

13 years ago

Indeed - kids today don't know how lucky they are...

13 years ago

Liked it alot. This video would have made learning chemistry in high school much easier.

13 years ago

You wont be disappointed - the best series on chemistry I`ve ever watched. It just finished running on TV.

Highly recommended!

13 years ago

I am very interested in chemistry and thank you for this video. I havent watched it in full yet but I sure will. Thank you!