For 15 years, Clif Tucker has been making a tantalizing offer to students in his chemistry class at Quincy Notre Dame High School.
Tucker tells students if they can memorize the periodic table -- and repeat it perfectly on a sheet of paper -- the student will earn an "A" for the semester.
From Tucker's point of view, this has been a pretty safe offer. That's because no one has ever accomplished the feat -- until about a month ago when two students pulled it off simultaneously.
Stephen Coy, a 16-year-old junior, and Clark Zellerman, a 17-year-old senior, achieved dual perfection. But they admit it wasn't easy.
The periodic table essentially is a chart listing 118 chemical elements vital to the study of chemistry. Many of these elements, and their corresponding symbols, are fairly well known to anyone who has studied general science. These would include nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), hydrogen (H), carbon (C), aluminum (Al), iron (Fe), nickel (Ni), zinc (Zn) and sodium (Na).
But beyond the more common elements are many obscurities the average Joe has never heard of.
For instance, the element assigned atomic number 38 on the periodic table is strontium (Sr); 39 is yttrium (Y); 42 is molybdenum (Mo); 64 is gadolinium (Gd); 66 is dysprosium (Dy); 106 is seaborgium (Sg); 109 is meitnerium (Mt); 114 is flerovium (Fl) ; and 118 is ununoctium (Uuo).
Try putting one of those in your salt shaker.
For his classroom challenge, Tucker required each student to memorize not just the name of the element, along with its symbol and atomic number, but they also had to give the atomic mass of each element. In other words, they had to know, for example, that rhenium (Re) is atomic number 75 and has an atomic mass of 186.207. And they had to recall similar details for the other 117 elements as well.
Typically, Tucker gives students about 30 days to memorize the periodic table. "Then, at the end of that time period, I give them a blank periodic table and they have to fill it in."
Until now, no one has filled in the chart without error. In fact, Tucker says, most students won't even try.
"After three or four years, I realized that the interest really wasn't there," he said. "Once they took a look at it, they thought, ‘This is too much work.' But these two guys decided to take it to the next step."
Indeed, Coy and Zellerman accepted Tucker's offer with enthusiasm.
"It was like a personal challenge for both of us to see if we could do it," Zellerman said.
Coy said earning a guaranteed "A" in chemistry was a big incentive for him. But memorizing the elements wasn't easy.
"It took a lot of commitment," he said.
Coy would strive to master at least five elements a day.
"I remember how I'd look at it and I'd get really tired," he said. "I'd see five and then I'd say, ‘Wait til tomorrow.' Well, tomorrow came and then there were 10 to do. You had to catch up sometime, and that was the hardest part."
In the end, both Coy and Zellerman filled out the table with confidence. Once Tucker reviewed their work -- and had two other QND science teachers verify the results -- he announced both students will receive an "A" for the semester.
"There is one condition," Tucker said. "The condition is they will get the A at the end of the semester as long as they don't check out on me, which means they're still required to do the labs and the work. But there's not the pressure of passing, per se."
No pressure to pass chemistry? Coy and Zellerman managed to refrain from cheering at that comment. But they were certainly smiling.
"It was a celebration in our minds," Zellerman said.