The Mystery of Matter

The Mystery of Matter
DVD cover
GenreDocumentary film
Created byStephen Lyons
Written byStephen Lyons
Directed byStephen Lyons; Muffie Meyer
Narrated byMichael Emerson
Theme music composerTom Phillips
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodesThree one-hour episodes
ProducersStephen Lyons; Moreno/Lyons Productions LLC; Oregon Public Broadcasting
CinematographyGary Henoch
EditorRaoul Rosenberg
Running time3 h (180 min)
Original networkPBS
Original release
  • Oregon:
    October 20, 2014 (2014-10-20)
  • United States:
    August 19, 2015 (2015-08-19)

The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements is a 2014 American documentary miniseries, which premiered nationwide on August 19, 2015. The PBS documentary, in three-episodes of one hour each, was directed by Stephen Lyons and Muffie Meyer.

The series, which took ten years to make, describes the search for the basic chemical elements that form matter by focusing on the lives and times of seven scientific visionaries. Hosted by actor Michael Emerson, the series depicts the creative process of the scientists, with actors describing the process of discovery in the scientists' own words and reenacting their major discoveries using replicas of their original laboratory equipment.


No. Episode Original air date (nationwide)
1"Out of Thin Air" (1754–1806)August 19, 2015 (2015-08-19)
Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier discover a new gas called oxygen, discrediting the basic theory of chemistry at the time, creating the basis for the modern science of chemistry, and prompting chemists all over the world to look for more new elements; Humphry Davy introduces audiences to nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") and uses electricity to search for new chemical elements.
2"Unruly Elements" (1859–1902)August 19, 2015 (2015-08-19)
Dmitri Mendeleev invents the periodic table, bringing order to the understanding of the elements for the first time; Marie Curie discovers several elements, including polonium and radium, and discovers radioactivity, demonstrating that elements can change identities and may consist of previously unsuspected subcomponents.
3"Into the Atom" (1910–1960)August 19, 2015 (2015-08-19)
Henry Moseley investigates atomic numbers and uncovers new details about the periodic table using X-ray spectroscopy; Glenn Seaborg creates plutonium, making nuclear weapons possible, and discovers related transuranium elements.


The documentary is narrated by Michael Emerson and includes the following participants (alphabetized by last name):


The seven featured scientists

Cast and advisors

Reviews and criticism

According to Carman Drahl of Forbes magazine, "Chemists will quickly recognize the life stories of giants in their field. This show wasn’t designed just for chemists, however. The target audience includes teachers, students, and curious TV viewers." The series, based on a National Science Foundation project description, tells "a 'detective story' of chemistry, stretching from the ancient alchemists to today's efforts to find stable new forms of matter". Mark Dawidziak, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, quotes the historical advisor, Alan Rocke: "[The series] portrays science as [a] very human process. People see it is a very mechanical process. A great humanity is revealed by these stories, but also the unfolding process of how science actually comes to these understandings of nature." Erica K. Jacobsen, of the Chemical Education Division of the American Chemical Society, found the series to be "an excellent tool for bringing students a different view of the periodic table and those involved in its history".

See also

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