The Periodic Dinner table

Chemistry built the modern world, from the materials that make up the everyday objects around us, the batteries in our devices and cleaning products that help to maintain sanitation. All this and much more besides are examples of chemistry in everyday life.

To illustrate this and have a bit of fun along the way we (Phil Bell-Young, the Salter’s Institute for Chemistry and I) put together a demonstration packed show called ‘The Periodic Dinner Table’.
It is a cross between demo lecture, comedy sketch and a game of bingo played on a periodic table. Just watch the video, and when you spot us interacting with an element cross it off on your periodic table (here’s one specially adapted for the show).

And in case you want the answers, you can find them on this video or in these teachers’ notes.

Hope you enjoy the show!

By August 9, 2021 0 comments chemical education, entertainment, fun

The Great Adamantium Heist – A chemistry themed escape room

For the last couple of years I’ve put together home escape rooms to entertain the kids over the festive period.

This year’s effort has a chemistry feel, and so I thought I’d share it in case anyone wants some inspiration for their own home-escape room. You might need to adapt things a bit depending on what you have to hand (mine includes a 3D printer!)

The Scenario:

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have succeeded in creating Unbibium, element 122! And it’s smack in the middle of the Island of Stability! Scientists are amazed by the fact it has a staggeringly long half-life of 524 thousand years. The team have even managed to make a few grams of the new element. Enough for them to test its physical properties. It looks like the Ubb has an incredible tensile strength. In fact it is so strong the press have taken to calling it adamantium

It turns out there are people who would like to get their hands on this new super metal. And that’s where you come in. You and your team have a reputation for being able to break into anywhere and steal anything. You’ve been approached via your dark-web chat room, to acquire the sample of adamantium. The unknown buyer will pay you £10 million for the sample that’s locked away in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

You quickly accept the job and hatch a plan.

The lab is world famous and lots of people want to see where new elements are made. So they regularly hold tours of their facilities. Your plan is to join one of the tours and then slip away and hide in the janitors cupboard in one of the labs. Then once all the scientists have gone home you’ll creep out, find the adamantium and make your escape. You know that the security guards come by about every 63 minutes, so if you time things right you’ll have just over an hour to get the job done. It probably won’t take that long, after all science labs aren’t known for their top-notch security!

The Set Up

I used the following to set up my escape room:

  • A padlocked box.

  • A combination lockbox (code set to 1716). Hidden in a draw.
  • A partial URL for a file on dropbox or similar e.g  https://universityofhull.box.com/v/MORSE, hidden in the combination lockbox. The URL will not work in this form. It needs to be completed by replacing  ‘Morse’ with the deciphered morse code found in the picture of Lise Mietner.
  • Computer – password protected with the ‘DEFGF
  • Postcards, on a notice board

  • One postcard contains a description of a holiday in Sweden and particularly Ytterby.


  • A 3D printer and and 3D files of the key for the padlock (you can find a printable lock and key at https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2564541). If you don’t have access to a 3D printer, then just use a combination lock for the padlocked case and replace the STL file for the key with the combination for the lock.
  • Some bismuth to represent Ubb, placed inside the padlocked box.
  • A lab coat 
  • A selection of popular science books, including Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Simon Singh’s The Code Book
  • A USB stick – hidden in a draw.
  • Pencils, paper for note taking. 
  • Smart speaker streaming music.

I used printed copies of:

  • Ubb and a radioactive symbol to stick to the padlocked box
  • A selection of  element infographics from Andy Brunning’s Compound Chem (mainly for decoration and red herrings)
  • The periodic table of element name origins
  • A picture of Lisa Meitner, hidden within the picture (just under her name) is some Morse code. Once deciphered this gives the final part of the URL. 


    • Sheet music for Tom Lehrer’s Element Song. Screwed up and left in the waste bin. If none of the players can read music you may need to include a musical note crib sheet
    • A ‘signed’ picture of David Guetta (singer of Titanium) and a ticket from a David Guetta concert.


  • Morse code crib sheet hidden in The Code Book.
  • Definitions of isotope symbols stuck to the wall e.g.

Element - Key Stage Wiki

Clues 1-3,

Together the first 3 clues provide the number for the combination locked box. All three clues are on a handwritten note placed in a lab coat pocket. 

Combination = AxBxC

Z of my favourite song = A 

Z of lightest element named after Sonia’s 1937 holiday = B

Z of ‘Seek p15 within literature on vanishing cutlery’ = C

Each of these clues refer to the atomic number of an element.

‘My favourite song’ = Titanium (Z = 22) by David Guette. The players should get this from the signed picture and ticket to the Guette concert. If they aren’t familiar with his music they can use the smart speaker to play through his songs.

‘Lightest element named after Sonia’s 1937 holiday’ refers to one of the postcards. And along with the periodic table of element name origins should give them Yttrium (Z= 39)

‘Seek p15 of the literature on vanishing cutlery’ should take the players to page 15 of ‘The Disappearing spoon’. When the note is placed over page 15 the hole in the note reveals ‘helium’ (z=2).

Once they have all the numbers they can work out that 22 x 39 x 2 = 1716, which provides the combination of the lockbox.

Clue 4

Within the combination lock box is a scrap of paper with https://universityofhull.box.com/v/MORSE typed on it, and for an extra clue  ‘Meitner’ is written on the back.

The URL will not work until the ‘MORSE’ section is replaced with the deciphered morse code hidden in the picture of Lise Meitner. 

The Morse code crib sheet is hidden in The Code Book. Together these allow the players to complete the URL with ‘Meitnerium109’.

Clue 5

To access the URL the players obviously need a computer.  The password to the computer is on a sticky note on the back of the monitor. It reads ‘Password: Rust notes from Mr Riddle and a german teacher’s song’.  Mr Riddle refers to Tom Riddle (Harry Potter fans should get this) and  ‘teacher’ in German is ‘Lehrer’. 

Clue 6

 In the waste paper bin is a copy of sheet music of Tom Lehrer’s element song. The player’s should get iron and oxygen from the reference to rust, and then reading the notes from the sheet music to get ‘DEFGF’, which will unlock the computer.

Once the players open the computer and go to  https://universityofhull.box.com/v/meitnerium109 they will be able to download the files to 3D print the key to the lock. A USB stick can be used to transfer the data to the printer (As an alternative, hide the combination to a second lock at a URL).

Then players simply print the key, open the padlocked case, retrieve the Ubb and make their escape!


By December 29, 2020 0 comments entertainment, fun, Uncategorized

Two years in the life of a lab whiteboard

Two years ago my group and I shared a time-lapse video: A Year in the Life of a New Research Lab.  Shortly after, I picked up a new set of markers and directed the camera at our lab whiteboard. We stopped the camera last week and can now share two years in the life of our whiteboard condensed down to a 1 minute video. It contains one photo a day taken at 11:30 am for ~750 days.



Note: Some photos have been omitted due to inactivity or because there was proprietary information on the board.

By August 3, 2016 0 comments entertainment, fun

Halloween Chemistry: Cinder Toffee!

How about a spot of halloween chemistry? With nice simple explanations for the trick or treaters.

Cinder toffee!!

You’ll need:

  • Sugar
  • Golden syrup
  • A jam/jelly thermometer
  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Grease proof paper
  • A baking tray
  • A saucepan


The toffee mix gets very hot, be careful when handling in and make sure there’s an adult helping.

What to do:

1. Weigh out 100grams (3.5 oz) of sugar into the saucepan.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of syrup
3. Heat the mixture on a stove whilst stirring it.
4. Check the temperature of the mixture.
5. Carry on heating until it reaches 145-150oC (293-302).
6. Quickly stir in 1 teaspoon of bicarb. It will suddenly bubble up.
7. Now pour it into the baking tray, lined with grease proof paper.
8. Leave it to cool.

9. Break it all up (best done with a hammer) and enjoy!

What’s going on?
So that’s a nice simple recipe for a tasty treat but where is the science?

First off there’s the sugar and syrup. There are actually loads of different types of sugars, the stuff you put in your coffee and the granulated sugar used here is sucrose. It looks like this:

Golden syrup is a mixture of water, sucrose and two other sugars called fructose and glucose. They look like this:
Sucrose is actually made up of a fructose and glucose molecule that have been joined together.
So why do we need these three sugars to make the toffee? Well, when they are mixed all together they interfere with crystal formation. To explain how this works let’s represent each of the sugars with a different shape.
If we have one type of sugar then the molecules can pack together nice and neatly, like in the diagram. And that is exactly what happens in a crystal. But if you mix them all together they can’t form ordered patterns and so you don’t get crystals forming.
So if we tried to make the toffee with just one type of sugar then we’d end up with crystals forming which make for hard dense toffee (more like a boiled sweet). But by using 3 different sugars the crystals don’t form and instead you end up with a brittle, crunchy, glass like toffee.
Then there’s the bicarbonate of soda. You normally put this in cakes to make them rise. That’s because when you heat up the bicarb it turns to carbon dioxide gas (hence the bubbles in your cakes). The same thing happens here. When you spoon the bicarb into the hot sugar it almost instantly gets converted to carbon dioxide and causes the mixture to foam up.

Hope you enjoy the toffee and whilst you do you can find out more about the science of cinder toffer here.

By October 31, 2015 4 comments chemical education, entertainment, fun