A New (& little) take on the Periodic Table

May 6, 2012

I just read and enjoyed The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric R. Scerri (Oxford 2012).

The periodic table of the elements is one of the icons of science. As author Eric Scerri writes, “The periodic table ranks as one of the most fruitful and unifying ideas in the whole of modern science, comparable perhaps with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. After evolving for nearly 50 years, …. the periodic table remains at the heart of the study of chemistry.”

But there have been roughly 1,000 versions of the table since Mendelev’s breakthrough in 1869. In modern times, we learn from Scerri, there have been Theodore Benfey’s spiral, Fernando Dufour’s three-dimensional tree, circles, ellipses, left step tables, and short forms, medium-long-forms, and long-forms.

Each version serves a different purpose, Scerri writes. “Whereas a chemist might favour a form that highlights the reactivity of the elements, an electrical engineer might wish to focus on similarities and patterns in electrical conductivities.”

Ironically, the one we all remember from high school is used because it’s convenient. Separating out the rare earth elements, as it does, makes the table narrow enough to fit the endpapers of chemistry books and the bulletin boards of labs and classrooms.

As old as the icon is, it’s still making discoveries, Scerri emphasizes. For example, the table was one of the primary principles used in the search for superconductivity; it was the clue that placed yttrium within a new set of superconducting compounds. Drugmakers, noting that gold and platinum sit next to each other on the table, replaced platinum atoms with gold atoms in various compounds and wound up with useful pharmaceuticals. And potassium, which is readily absorbed by the body, has been replaced in some molecules by rubidium, which lies below potassium and mimics it; the result is treatments for brain cancers.

Naturally, on the influence of physics on the table, Scerri sides with chemistry. He notes that Einstein’s theory of relativity explains the color of gold and the liquidity of mercury as relativistic effects due to fast-moving inner-shell electrons. But he emphasizes that quantum mechanics has had a profound influence on the periodic system.

The periodic table, he continues, has “served as a testing ground for the theories of atomic physics and for many early aspects of quantum theory and the later quantum mechanics. … But what seems to be forgotten in the current reductionist climate is that the periodic table led to the development of many aspects of modern quantum mechanics and so it is rather short-sighted to insist that only the latter explains the former.”

In short, he disapproves of modern textbooks that treat chemistry as “nothing but physics ‘deep down’ and [that say] that all chemical phenomena, and especially the periodic system, can be developed on the basis of quantum mechanics.” In fact, he argues that the explanation of the periodic system is still incomplete and far from perfect. For example, he writes that it is still unclear whether hydrogen should be placed with the alkali metals or the halogens — or whether it should “float majestically” atop the table, as a special case… above the law, very much like the British Royal family once was.”

In concluding his book, Scerri writes about some scientists today who believe that the table’s approximate repetition of the properties of the elements reveals, not an objective fact about the natural world, but a property imposed on nature by human agents. For them, of course, discovering the best periodic table is irrelevant.

Scerri, though, argues that the repetition of the properties of the elements — while neither constant nor precise — reveals an objective fact about the natural world. And for him, the best table would maximize the number of atomic number triads. Triads are groups of three elements where the atomic weight of one element is roughly the average of the other two. Using this system, for example, Scerri would sit hydrogen on top of the halogens.

So why is someone like myself, a non-chemist who just wrote a history of Bayesian statistics, interested in this book?

As a writer, I enjoyed reading about many interesting and to me unknown stories about the history of the table. Scerri’s historical depth also resonated with me because of my days as editor and writer about physics for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. One particular facet of the article I co-authored on “The Atom” comes to mind. A young English physicist Henry Moseley who died in World War I at the age of 26 put the periodic table on a rigorous basis by confirming experimentally that each element has a different atomic number. In our Encyclopaedia article, we brought out the then little-known fact that in all likelihood Moseley was directly influenced by Niels Bohr’s version of the atom because the two men had spent time together in the same laboratory.

Another aspect of the periodic table appeared in the history of the chemical industry that I wrote a while ago. One of the chapters is about Thomas Midgley, the inventor of leaded gasoline and CFCs, who carried a copy of the periodic table in his pocket. The table was the foundation — and extent — of much of Midgley’s chemical research.

Finally, this is a beautifully produced little book that’s ideal for gift-giving. It’s a summary of Scerri’s full-scale The Periodic Table: Its Story and Significance. It’s part of a series of “Very Short Introductions” published by Oxford University Press.

Its cover — “based on a concept by Philip Atkins,” whatever Oxford thinks that means — is an irresistibly silky-smooth landscape of greens and browns. At $12, it’s a pocket-sized book to give a chemist or a chemistry student — or simply a friend who likes science.

Comments

  1. May 9, 2012 12:40 PM EDT
    Fantastic review...right on about Dr. Scerri's ability to engage the reader any reader about the periodic table as a history and most interesting integral part of our lives.
    - Scott Riggi
  2. May 10, 2012 1:10 PM EDT
    I am currently reading this book. Great to know what's coming. So far I am fascinated at his fascination with the table. It is contagious. Like you I find the fact that he feels it incomplete and still needs adjustment, a real thing to consider and I agree that this book is perfect as a gift. But I wouldn't limit it to anyone interested in science. The way it is written, I think anyone interested in learning about the world around them would find this to be a great read!
    - Teresa Bondora (The Periodic Table of Element Coloring Book)
  3. May 10, 2012 1:22 PM EDT

    Many thanks Sharon and Scott.

    Coming from such an accomplished writer as Sharon these comments are especially gratifying. I have two of her books including "Prometheans in the Lab" in which she recounts the odd story of Thomas Midgley. Excellent read for anyone interested in science. Midgley not only put the lead in gasoline but also helped to threaten the ozone layer as a result of his chemical inventions.
    - Eric Scerri
  4. June 19, 2012 12:33 PM EDT
    Dear Sharon,

    having read the book several times and sought after similar titles, treating the subject from a contemporary view of a chemist, I soon stepped upon the Book of the distinguished Chemist Henry A. Bent (known, amongst other great contributions, for "Bent´s rule", a descriptor in VSEPR theory...), entitled New Ideas in Chemistry from fresh Energy for the Periodic system", 2006 - cf. sources on the Internet). SInce then, I take another, very different view of Eric Scerris approach to the subject. First of all, Scerri does not properly cite Bent´s work, instead, he refers to "...some other authors" and omits purposefully a decent discussion of Bent´s results about the significance of the Left Step Periodic Table (LSPT). It´s a shame. Other scientific contemporaries, like the Theoretical Chemist Schwarz, show the same practice. I highly recommend the study of Henry Bent´s publications.
    - Dr. Marcus Wolf, Nürnberg

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