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The Art of the Periodic Table

All images are by Damon Kowarsky and Hyunju Kim, and were commissioned by Quantum Victoria as part of a hexagon installation launched on 18 July 2019 at Quantum Victoria.

All images are by Damon Kowarsky and Hyunju Kim, and were commissioned by Quantum Victoria as part of a hexagon installation launched on 18 July 2019 at Quantum Victoria.

By Ariana Remmel

To mark the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Periodic Table, a STEM education centre is unveiling a permanent installation illustrating the birth of the universe through elements of significance.

No science classroom is complete without a periodic table. Although students new to chemistry are often confused by the uneven shapes that organise the elements, experienced chemists know that this elegant diagram is the key to understanding the natural world.

Thus, IUPAC has named 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table to inspire both scientists and the public to celebrate its beauty. Melbourne-based artists Damon Kowarsky (http://damon.tk) and Hyunju Kim (http://hyunju.tk) have created a collection that does just that.

In 2017, Kowarsky was approached by Soula Bennett for a project that would marry art and science. Bennett is the Director of Quantum Victoria (www.quantumvictoria.vic.edu.au), one of six Specialist Science and Mathematics Centres established by the Victorian Department of Education and Training. Quantum’s mission is to cultivate curiosity and motivation in students and teachers to promote excellence in STEM education. Bennett had a vision for an installation in her Centre that would imagine “the birth of the universe through the lens of the periodic table”.

Kowarsky is an award-winning artist trained in scientific illustration, making him the perfect candidate to bring her vision to life. Bennett and Kowarsky worked closely to select 49 elements that came into existence in the early universe, along with famous scientists who would be generally familiar to students. Bennett required that each piece included not only the element’s symbol and atomic number, but also scientifically relevant information about its properties and use.

Kowarsky did extensive research to compile each aspect of the proposed images. He then hand-drew each piece before sending them to collaborator Kim to complete the colour. The final result shows the unique beauty of each element in the collection.

For elements such as sodium, Kowarsky did not want to rely on a depiction of the material’s physical form. “What strikes me about sodium is its reactivity, which depends on the electrons,” says Kowarsky. Although the electrons are shown organised in shells as per the Bohr model, the colourful background gives an impression of the complexity of orbitals overlapping in the atom. The image also includes sodium’s emission spectrum, a fusion diagram and a series of interestingly shaped sodium light bulbs.

Other pieces emphasise the element’s cultural relevance. The piece for uranium features the atomic bomb in front of an aerial view of Hiroshima. The chain reaction that makes uranium so powerful can also be seen alongside test tubes of assays that are used to determine the element’s oxidation state.


Several of the elements include distinctly Australian features. “Wherever I could, I tried to bring in pieces of Australian nature and culture because I want our students to know that the periodic table is a part of their everyday lives,” says Kowarsky. For example, eucalyptus leaves are prominent in the image for carbon. The acacia tree, known for its nitrogen fixation abilities, thus dominates the image for nitrogen. Nickel, too, shows a piece of the Australian five-cent coin.

Bennett is thrilled with the final results, which will be launched at Quantum Victoria on 18 July 2019 in an event open to the community. “It so far surpassed what I had originally envisioned,” says Bennett, “I can’t wait for Victorian students to be immersed in the beauty of the installation and come to appreciate the thinking behind the periodic table that has made it one of the most significant big ideas in science.”

Kowarsky himself hopes the work will spread to classrooms beyond Quantum Victoria. While the periodic table may seem daunting to early learners, these pieces engage students from all backgrounds in the beauty and creativity of science. The full collection can be found on Kowarsky’s website (www.periodictable.ga).


Ariana Remmel is a science writer with a BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a MS in Chemistry and Biochemistry. Ariana covers topics across the physical sciences with a special interest in the intersection of art and science. Reproduced from Chemistry in Australia (chemaust.raci.org.au). All images are by Damon Kowarsky and Hyunju Kim, and were commissioned by Quantum Victoria as part of a hexagon installation launched on 18 July 2019 at Quantum Victoria.