Northern Ireland

Ulster Museum elements exhibition explores universal themes

Periodic table Image copyright SPL

They are the basic building blocks of life, the universe and everything but the roles played by the elements in everyday life, and the danger and beauty they contain, are often overlooked.

But a new exhibition at a Belfast museum is putting virtually all known elements of the universe in the spotlight.

Elements: From Actinium to Zirconium at the Ulster Museum brings together art, science, history and technology,

It is organised around a series of themes encompassing life and death, wealth and fashion, art and technology, and colour and light.

"The exhibition looks at pretty much all the elements in the universe," says curator Dr Mike Simm.

"It's everything around you, everything you can see and a lot of things you can't."

Among the fascinating facts at the exhibition are:

Dangerous neighbours

Image copyright Ulster Museum

Bismuth's neighbours on the periodic table are the highly poisonous elements lead, mercury and polonium.

However, bismuth compounds are used to make cosmetics and indigestion remedies without people suffering any ill effects.

Sophistication behind spy's poisoning

Deadly beauty

Image copyright AP
Image caption Artists such as Claude Monet used paints made from cadmium

Artists have used paints made from cadmium compounds for centuries - the chemical makes brilliant red, yellow and orange pigments.

For example, the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet used cadmium pigments extensively.

However, it is a highly poisonous heavy metal that causes liver and kidney damage, and high doses can be fatal.

Your Paintings - Claude Monet

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Mad hatters

Image copyright Ulster Museum
Image caption Thermometers no longer contain mercury, which is highly poisonous

While the top hat fashion revival is yet to take hold, the politically-incorrect phrase "as mad as a hatter" is still sometimes used today.

Image copyright BrianThompson

It is thought to date back to the 18th century when top hats were the height of style.

Mercury was used to make the felt for top hats.

Daily exposure to the metal accumulated in the bodies of people who worked in hat factories, and this affected their mental health.

Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, but it is a poison that can cause nerve damage.

While 'quicksilver' medical thermometers are still on sale, these no longer contain mercury.

They use a mixture of gallium, indium and tin that melts at -19C and is harmless.

Mercury: beautiful but deadly

How mercury poisons gold miners and enters the food chain

Natural cosmetics

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption White lead or cerussite has been used in cosmetics throughout history, although it is now banned

When it comes to make-up, the exhibition demonstrates how natural is not always best.

Up until barely a century ago, cosmetics were commonly made from grounded lead, antimony or mercury.

This would sometimes cause skin ulcerations or, in extreme cases, death.

Elements: From Actinium to Zirconium runs until March 2016 and is free to enter.

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