[First in a series of occasional posts for the International Year of the Periodic Table.]
As anyone who has been perusing their C&EN knows, the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table, and the American Chemical Society will be sponsoring a number of related events.
Although 1869 may be viewed as the official year for Dimitri Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodicity of the elements — not the table itself — the concept was controversial. An author writing in the early 1900s referred to the recent development of the periodic table as the feat of organization that would transform chemistry from a random assemblage of information into a true science with predictive power. I regret that I cannot more accurately identify the source of that perspective, but I was browsing Rice University’s Fondren Library in the mid 1990s when I read that, and I did not record the exact quote and citation at the time. However, I was intrigued by the idea that this structure that I had taken for granted had so (relatively) recently been controversial.
Some readers may have only ever worked with the version of the periodic table that fits so nicely on a standard sheet of paper, and might be surprised by Sam Lemonick’s article in the January 7th C&EN discussing ongoing controversy about arranging the elements. In addition to structures such as the left step or the long form, you can peruse Wikipedia and the web to find more exotic spirals and three-dimensional tables. Several authors have written book-length discussions of the periodic table, many of which discuss various formats and their advantages and disadvantages. Eric Scerri, the author of one such text, is arguably (and he does seem to enjoy a good argument) the most prominent of those engaged in the periodic table debate in the USA.
Other readily recognized images of science have multiple associations: the microscope or DNA might be used in forensics or medicine as well as biology; the planetary atom is identified with chemistry, physics, and with nuclear power; iconic photos of famous scientists such as Albert Einstein or Marie Curie pop up everywhere including internet memes. The periodic table is closely identified with chemistry, making it one of our most central images as well as a crucial concept and tool. So take the periodic challenge, vote for your favorite element, and enjoy the year of the periodic table as the world celebrates our icon!
Guest author: Susan Wiediger
Susan Wiediger, Associate Professor of Chemistry at SIU–Edwardsville, is the Education Committee chair for the local section, as well as (obviously) a big fan of the cental paradigm of the Central Science.