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"Holy Plutonium, Batman--It's Chemistry!"

by Heidi Bright Parales

What sort of reaction do you get when you mix comic books with chemistry? Usually some chuckles and some curiosity, but also a new Web site: www.uky.edu/~holler/periodic/periodic.html.

The Comic Book Periodic Table site is the brainchild of two University of Kentucky professors of chemistry. John Selegue and James Holler discovered a mutual interest in the comic books of their youth, the 1950s and '60s, and the effect those comic books had on their early, and continued, interest in chemistry.

The Web site shows a Periodic Table of the Elements (a systematic arrangement of all the known chemical elements according to their atomic structure) and comic books that featured those elements, both in their characters and plots.

Click on oxygen (O), for example, and you'll get three thumbnails, including one of a Ricky Nelson panel. Click on the thumbnail image of Ricky Nelson, and you'll get the whole page. It features Nelson donning a geeky pair of glasses and trying to impress a young woman with his so-called knowledge of the atomic world, including oxygen.

If you click on "Web Elements," you are transported to a site that explains the element oxygen in more scientific terms. The Web Elements site was created by professor Mark Winter of the University of Sheffield, England.

If you click on iodine (I), you'll get a thumbnail of a panel of Walt Disney's Donald Duck. Click on the thumbnail image and you'll get the whole page, which features Donald and his nephews harvesting kelp for its iodine content in an attempt to get rich quick.

In the process of getting this Web site up and running Holler says he gained skills he now uses when teaching his chemistry classes. "Most of my research now involves developing education materials and developing Web materials for educational purposes," he says.

Many of the comic book images on this site date from 1956 to 1970, says Selegue, "a time when many comic-book writers used science as a basis for character ideas and plot developments." Writers were aware that most people felt a bit intimidated by chemistry, so the writers played on this trepidation to awe their audiences. They created characters who gained special abilities through some chemical event.

Writers moved from chemistry to cosmic radiation, then to using genetic mutations as bases for their characters and plots. This change in the comic books gives one insight into how science was viewed by audiences during the period the comic books were produced.

The site has become a popular destination on the Web, getting about 500 to 1,000 "hits" on the home page each day. Since April 1, 1998, browsers from more than 70,000 separate hosts in 120 different countries have accessed the site. About 10 percent of those accessing the site are from U.S. educational institutions.

On May 4, 1998, the site was selected as the Yahoo Pick of the Week. The next day it was declared the WorldVillage Family Site of the Day.

Feedback on the site is almost universally positive. Holler says parents love it. "They get really excited about the site as a way to keep kids interested in things scientific," he says.

Selegue says that the site is most gratifying when it comes to reactions from grade-school children. Holler adds, "Our hope is that there will be kids out there who are going to look at the table, not knowing what the table is, and click to see where it leads them." Both professors treasure the thought that perhaps their site might spark the interest of some child somewhere to pursue a career in chemistry.