Ames Lab featured on PBS NOVA special, Hunting the Elements

ImageAmes Laboratory and several of its scientists were in the spotlight as the PBS television series NOVA aired a two-hour special, “Hunting the Elements,” on Wednesday, April 4.

For one day last summer, a camera crew staked out labs in Ames Laboratory’s Wilhelm and Spedding Halls and Metals Development building to film David Pogue, the frenetic host of NOVA’s popular “Making Stuff” series and a New York Times technology correspondent, talking with Ames Lab researchers about the rare earths. Pogue bantered with senior physicist Paul Canfield, joked with senior metallurgist and “Mr. Rare Earth,” Karl Gschneidner, talked (and played with) magnets with Bill McCallum and chatted with Materials Preparation Center director Larry Jones about the “row” of materials on the periodic table known as the lanthanides or rare earths. (To read more about the filming and see photos, go to the story in the July 2011 Insider.)

The show’s producers provide the following description of the program on the NOVA website:

Where do nature’s building blocks, called the elements, come from? They’re the hidden ingredients of everything in our world, from the carbon in our bodies to the metals in our smartphones. To unlock their secrets, David Pogue, the lively host of NOVA’s popular "Making Stuff" series and technology correspondent of The New York Times, spins viewers through the world of weird, extreme chemistry: the strongest acids, the deadliest poisons, the universe’s most abundant elements, and the rarest of the rare—substances cooked up in atom smashers that flicker into existence for only fractions of a second.

Why are some elements like platinum or gold inert while others like phosphorus or potassium violently explosive? Why are some vital to every breath we take while others are lethal toxins that killed off their discoverers such as Marie Curie? As he digs for answers, Pogue reveals the story of the elements to be a rich stew simmering with passion, madness, and obsessive scientific rivalry. Punctuated by surprising and often alarming experiments, this program takes NOVA on a roller-coaster ride through nature’s hidden lab and the compelling stories of discovery that revealed its secrets.

MPC Director Larry Jones explains rare earth processing
to David Pogue as the camera rolls

For anyone who saw part or all of the “Making Stuff” episodes, Pogue has fun explaining various aspects of the scientific topics he covers. He comes across as part geek, part journalist, and part comedian, as witnessed first-hand by Jones during the segment they taped together.

"After seeing David Pogue on the original 'Making Stuff' series, I knew what an energetic fellow he is, and it turned out what you see on television and what you get in person is pretty similar,” Jones says. “He's a fun guy who is very positive about science, and I enjoyed working with him during the filming."

The taping wasn’t really scripted so the producers and Pogue worked primarily on the fly, with Pogue interviewing the researcher to draw out what they might be looking for.  It’s not your everyday occurrence for researchers to find themselves in front of the camera.

"Being on camera is a pretty interesting thing,” Jones says. “Where do you look?  How do you interact?  Luckily the NOVA producers gave me a five-minute 'acting' lesson and told me not to look at the camera man too much!  And I learned it takes a lot of time, takes and effort to get the few minutes you see on TV. It's not as easy as it looks, but it was a lot of fun."

While the goal of “Hunting the Elements” is to both inform and entertain, it also helps shine a spotlight on the DOE’s national labs, however briefly.

"I'm hoping people who don't know a lot about DOE's national laboratories watch Hunting the Elements,” Jones says, “and they'll learn about the important research going on at the national labs, and, in particular, the rare-earth research  at Ames Laboratory. Hopefully they'll learn a little bit more about why DOE research is important to them."

IPTV is also glad to be broadcasting a NOVA program with an Iowa connection.

"We know Iowa teachers and families enjoy learning and growing from NOVA each week," says Jennifer Glover Konfrst, IPTV Communications Manager. "We also know that our state has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in science and technology. It's nice to see NOVA utilizing Iowa's resources - and to imagine what the next generation of Iowa scientists will learn from this episode."