Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

NOVA: Hunting The Elements

In a chemistry lab at New Mexico Tech, Senior Research Scientist Christa Hockensmith (right) shows David Pogue (left) how to test for elements in bomb debris.
Courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation
In a chemistry lab at New Mexico Tech, Senior Research Scientist Christa Hockensmith (right) shows David Pogue (left) how to test for elements in bomb debris.

Airs Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

What are things made of? The answer is astonishing. There are about 90 naturally-occurring elements that are the ingredients for everything and everyone — combining in countless ways to form things from solid rocks to ethereal gases, from scorching acids to the living cells in our body. Of those elements, we are made of only six. But how can it be that it takes so few to make so much?

Name That Element!

Think you know the periodic table? See how quickly you can name the mystery elements we describe in this quiz.

Watch footage of some of the explosions in NOVA’s "Hunting the Elements" in this behind-the-scenes blog post.

In “Hunting the Elements,” NOVA’s fascinating two-hour documentary, intrepid New York Times technology correspondent David Pogue — host of NOVA’s popular “Making Stuff” series — takes viewers on a quest to understand chemistry and all of the materials of life: the 118 unique elements that make up the amazing periodic table, including the 90 naturally-occurring elements and those created by scientists.


Find out why copper is king, gases are noble and gold is “stand-offish.” What is the rarest? What does it take to create a new element? “Hunting the Elements” is a journey that delves into the elements that are essential to understanding everything from the Big Bang to the living cells within the human body.

Why are some elements, like oxygen, phosphorus and potassium, violently reactive while others — such as platinum and gold — are relatively inert? Why are some elements potentially lethal while others are vital to sustain every breath we take?

Pogue travels the globe, visiting places including St. Petersburg, where Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev first cracked the code of the elements in the 1860s; a U.S. gold mine and refinery; and a facility in Florida where researchers are testing a tank of sharks that may be repelled by rare earth metals.

The film is also punctuated by surprising experiments, in which Pogue and researchers dramatically blow up more than a few items. Pogue visits a research center at New Mexico Tech where the business of violent reactions is booming.

Plus, he pays a call on lively scientist Theodore Gray at his lair hidden amidst the Midwestern cornfields, where the pair conduct a few more volatile chemistry experiments — including one in which they combine sodium and chlorine gases, a potentially hazardous scenario that instead yields some freshly salted popcorn for them to munch on!


Using animations and eye-popping experiments, NOVA and David Pogue will demonstrate how each element’s internal structure has fundamentally determined its properties as well as its role in history in this visually spectacular documentary.

NOVA is on Facebook, and you can follow @novapbs on Twitter.

Your browser does not support this object. Content can be viewed at actual source page:

Watch Hunting the Elements Promo on PBS. See more from NOVA.

This program takes NOVA on a roller-coaster ride through nature’s hidden lab and the compelling stories of discovery that revealed its secrets.