Chemistry has long been regarded as the ugly sister of high school subjects

Chemistry has long been regarded as the ugly sister of high school subjects. The tinselly sparkle of iron filings over a Bunsen burner has never been enough to snatch teenagers’ attentions away from other, ’sexier’ topics. The recent discovery of a new chemical element, however, has got students flocking to the chemistry lab in their droves. 

Dubbed coolium (chemical symbol: Yo!) the newest addition to the periodic table is causing quite a stir among teens keen to exploit its attractive properties. The rush to the lab began when it transpired that raw coolium could be used to power MP3 players and mobile phones. Interest began to swell further with the announcement of further properties that appealed to younger people, such as its ability to crystallise into blingtastic jewellery when frozen; its superelasticity, which is driving a new generation of supercatapults; and even its suitability as starter-bra padding material. Most remarkable is the fact that it is also edible, having exactly the same nutritional makeup as cheese strings. 

Coolium is exciting and frustrating scientists in equal measures. For Wes Hoover-Dyson, chief chemist at ICI Europe, coolium research breakthroughs are fast becoming an everyday occurrence, but not in the areas he expects. ’Every time we test for an industrial or medical use we hit a brick wall, but invariably we discover a new property which appeals to kids. Watch.’ To demonstrate, the doctor invites me to sit down on a disc-shaped lump of coolium. The ensuing rasp is enough to put any whoopee cushion to shame and causes his entire lab staff to shed quiet tears of laughter into their petri dishes. 

But it’s not just scientists who are in a funk over the new discovery. Fashion houses keen to secure the teenage dollar have woken up to chemistry cool, or Chemicool, as the next big thing. High street clothing giants H&M recently launched a new autumn-winter range called Elemental, backed by slogans such as ’Copper look at our new styles’ and ’Our prices argon-a thrill you’. The launch party at the flagship store in London’s Oxford Circus saw Victoria Beckham hit the catwalk in test-tube fit jeans, an empire line lab coat and designer protective goggles. ’We all like to look good when we’re experimenting,’ she purred to the assembled media. 

The music industry is also feeling the impact of Chemicool, with bands such as The Chemical Brothers, My Chemical Romance and Iron Maiden experiencing unprecedented demand for their back catalogues. The latter has been booked to headline at next summer’s Make Poverty Chemistry concert in Hyde Park, a more explosive yet empathetic cousin of its predecessor, Make Poverty History, according to its PR team. 

Hoover-Dyson is continuing his research on coolium isotopes - cureforacneium and underagedrinkingium - but is keen to dispel the idea that the new element is causing a dumbing down of the subject. ’It is not just about coolium. Children are coming round to chemistry because it’s a serious subject that deserves a lot more respect,’ he says, as he moulds a piece of coolium into a comedy dog poo and slips it into a colleague’s packed lunch box. 

Jim Allen

This article first appeared in  Null Hypothesis