August 18th, 2012

The periodic table

[NOTE: I came across this post from 2006 the other day and thought it could bear a recycling.]

When I was in junior high there was a large poster of the Periodic Table of the Elements that hung in the science classroom in front of a little-used blackboard spanning the right side of the room, next to where I sat.

I’m not sure whether anybody in the junior high learned what the chart was about—we certainly didn’t. But it was a grim reminder of what awaited us in high school, when we’d be required to take Chemistry and Physics and Geometry and Trigonometry and a bunch of other subjects that sounded Hard, and sounded like An Awful Lot of Work.

I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. In my more bored moments in class (and I had quite a few of them) I would glance at that chart on the wall and idly ponder its arcane mysteries. It looked like a more old-fashioned and slightly yellowing version of this:

That chart was the sort of thing that made me nearly sick to my stomach whenever I looked at it, something like slide rules and drawings of the innards of the internal combustion engine, and the long rows of monotonous monochromatic law books in my father’s office.

But then time passed—as time often does—and I found myself a junior in high school, sitting in chemistry class and finally (and reluctantly) about to penetrate the secrets of the Periodic Table. The teacher, a small, elderly (oh, he must have been at least fifty), enthusiastic, spry man, explained it to us.

I sat awestruck as I took in what he was saying. That chart may have looked boring, but it demonstrated something so absolutely astounding that I could hardly believe it was true. The world of the elements at the atomic level was spectacularly orderly, with such grandeur, power, and rightness that I could only think of one term for it, and that was “beautiful.”

I did very well in chemistry, and even thought of majoring in it in college, although in the end I stuck to psychology and anthropology. But I never forgot the lesson of the Periodic Table (actually, it taught many lessons, although some of them I did forget). But the one I remembered most was that appearances can be deceptive, and that what lies beneath a bland and stark exterior can be a world of magic.

And now I’ve finally discovered a Periodic Table worth its salt—or, rather, its sodium chloride. Take a look at this, a Periodic Table nearly as lovely as the elemental wonders it illustrates:

If you follow the link to the poster at its source, you can click on parts of it to enlarge them and see more of the detail. And then you might say with Keats:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

23 Responses to “The periodic table”

  1. Kurt Says:

    I can relate to your feelings about the periodic table, both in junior high science and beyond, but I can go further than that. As a kid growing up, we had various old games in the basement. I’m not sure where they all came from, but one was called Elemento, and it was designed to teach about the elements and the periodic table. I never played that game. I’m not sure where it came from or how it came to be in our basement. On the occasions (either in late elementary school or possibly junior high school) when I inquired about it, I was told it was “difficult,” and so I never had any interest in exploring it further. Years later, when I was in college and had decided that chemistry was not a subject I was interested in selecting as a major (largely because I hated the labs and the thought of organic chemistry, with its 6-hour long lab section once a week, sounded simply awful), I came across the game in the basement again and realized its purpose. Had I been encouraged to play the Elemento game when I was younger, I wonder if I would have felt differently about chemistry?

  2. physicsguy Says:

    What still amazes me even further (and I love to watch the light come on for my students) is that the Periodic Table can be explained by the Schrodinger equation when coupled with the Pauli exclusion principle. One equation to explain the entire chemical world.

    Maybe you have to be a physicist to appreciate the beauty of that idea, but it’s those “truths” that really motivated me to physics.

  3. parker Says:

    “That chart may have looked boring, but it demonstrated something so absolutely astounding that I could hardly believe it was true. The world of the elements at the atomic level was spectacularly orderly, with such grandeur, power, and rightness that I could only think of one term for it, and that was “beautiful.” ”

    “One equation to explain the entire chemical world.”

    And we mere mortals achieved the transmutation of the elements approximately 7 decades ago.

  4. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    We are so lucky that the universe organized itself in such a way as to allow the periodic table.
    And we are so lucky that we evolved to appreciate it.
    Very lucky.
    Yeah, lucky.
    What else could explain it?

  5. parker Says:

    “What else could explain it?”

    Curtis has the answer to your question.

  6. Occam's Beard Says:

    the Periodic Table can be explained by the Schrodinger equation when coupled with the Pauli exclusion principle.

    I kind of agree, but with this caveat: the periodic table predates quantum mechanics by quite a bit, and therefore rather than being predicted by q.m., was found empirically by eyeballing patterns in reactivity and properties.

    Also, if quantum mechanics did not explain the periodic table, then it would be rejected as useless. Quantum mechanics, the Pauli Exclusion Principle, and the Aufbau Principle together neatly rationalize the empirical observations.

    (Btw, for my sins, I used to have to interview prospective undergrads, and often asked what one discovery they wished they could have made. Most, caught off-guard by the question, would mumble something about the structure of DNA. My answer would have been “the periodic table.”)

  7. Bob Says:

    On the road from the airport into St Petersburg where Lobachevsky’s lab was located, the periodic table has been painted onto the side of the building taking up four or five floors and visible for some distance as one drives by.

  8. Bob Says:

    Oops, wrong Russian. Mendeleev was the chemist in St Pete. I must have been woolgathering in some other geometry.

  9. rickl Says:

    Here’s a cool interactive periodic table:

    Click on any element, and you get a whole article about it.

  10. Gringo Says:

    Oops, wrong Russian. Mendeleev was the chemist in St Pete. I must have been woolgathering in some other geometry.

    The only connection that I know between Lobachevsky and the Periodic Table of the Elements is Tom Lehrer, who wrote songs about both. Not that I am saying anything that Neo didn’t already know, as she has often posted Tom Lehrer songs. She posted Lobachevsky not long ago. The Elements Lobachevsky

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    Gringo: I also know most Lehrer songs by heart. Therefore I knew the Elements song before I ever got to chemistry class.

    Except I didn’t know where one element ended and another began—they all blended together in one big word, “There’s antimonyarsenicaluminumselenium….”

  12. waltj Says:

    If someone could have clearly explained the order inherent in the Periodic Table when I took my first chemistry class in junior high, I probably would have understood chemistry a whole lot better when I was a student. Instead, I got explanations that might have made sense to someone who already had a solid foundation in the subject. Same thing with math. I struggled, until someone thought to stick a dollar sign in front of the numbers. Then the light went on, and I aced my accounting classes.

    I like the pictorial Periodic Table. It’s similar to pictorial foreign language dictionaries that I’ve found extremely useful. Want to know, say, the Thai word for “brake pedal”, look up the picture of the car, with the Thai and English labels on all the parts, from the brake pedal, to the tires, to the timing belt, to whatever. I find it easier to use a word if I know its real-world context. I imagine it would be the same for the elements.

  13. rickl Says:

    This is off-topic, but still science-y. Here is one of the best Oatmeal cartoons I’ve ever seen: Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.

    It turns out that Matthew Inman (creator of The Oatmeal, aka the Dark Lord of Oats) is raising money to buy the land where Tesla’s laboratory is sited with the intention of building a goddamn Tesla museum.

    After reading that cartoon, I not only donated, I ended up pledging an amount of money that should get me institutionalized. I don’t know what got into me. But hey, it’s a worthy cause, and my school taxes aren’t due for another two weeks.

    Later I discovered that I’m rubbing elbows (virtually speaking) with Steve Jurvetson, who is a major SpaceX investor. Gotta love the internet.

    And really, we wouldn’t have the internet if it weren’t for Tesla.

  14. Occam's Beard Says:

    Instead, I got explanations that might have made sense to someone who already had a solid foundation in the subject.

    This is a pet peeve of mine in chemistry (and especially) math education. Chemistry classes invariably start with the Schroedinger equation, which is not chemistry and was only devised long after lot of chemistry was already known. It is, in a sense, an after the fact rationalization of centuries of observations. It’s elegant, but teaching it first does not reflect the historical intellectual development of the subject. My question at the time was what in God’s green earth motivated Schroedinger to write the damned equation in the first place?

    Similar considerations obtain for molecular orbital theory (where’s Charlie, anyway?). One day Mulliken just decided to make linear combinations of atomic orbitals? Why? Had he eaten a bad burrito and had visions or something?

    I prefer a more phenomenological introduction to chemistry. Here are the observations, how can we understand them, and predict future ones? MO theory came from the observation that the number of conjugated double bonds in dyes correlated with their color. The dye industry wanted to know why, and how to use that information.

    Some transition metal complexes are colored, some colorless, some are pulled into magnetic fields, some are pushed out, some exchange ligands quickly, others slowly. Why? Bethe’s crystal field theory neatly explained all of those observations, converting a patchwork of bewildering data into a coherent whole.

    Students find that approach much more interesting because it gets into real chemistry – which is interesting to everyone, as evidenced by any bangs and booms lecture – first, and hooking them on the subject, seques into the theory that explains what they’ve just seen.

  15. Don Carlos Says:

    The order of the Universe, which man has diligently and incrementally discovered, is proof that God the Creator exists.

  16. waltj Says:

    Occam, it would have been nice to have had you or someone like you as a science teacher when I was young. I love science in general, but I always had a hard time with science and higher math in school. Some of it was my fault because of my at times indifferent study habits back in the day, but I also had some awful teachers. I’ve had all types of bad: ignorant of the subject, lousy at presentation, incomprehensible foreign accent, illegible writing on the board, droning monotone, you name it.

  17. Occam's Beard Says:

    Waltj, I was lousy at math (as physical scientists go), largely because of a lack of talent plus some poor teachers. One math prof, from whom I took Diff Eq., was right off the boat from China. He used to say, “Sorve dis equation for all possible sorutions,” and then turn and mutter into the blackboard in Chinglish for the rest of the lecture. “All possible sorutions” was generally the last thing he said that I understood.

    Curiously, I quite like math now, but have lost interest in chemistry.

  18. Occam's Beard Says:

    I think pervasive problem with university-level instruction is that faculty think they should lecture on something of interest to them, and consequently pitch lectures way too high.

    I practiced my first lecture in freshman chem (before my pedagogical epiphany described above) before a colleague, and covered periodicity, exclusion principle, Aufbau principle, and shielding. What did he think?, I asked. He said it was great, but you just covered the first semester’s work in one hour.

    Even in graduate level courses, it’s easy to blow people away inadvertently. Bottom line: if you’re bored by the subject material, you’re aiming too high. The trick is not to let your boredom show, but to feign the excitement you felt when you first grasped the topic.

  19. Good Ole Charlie Says:


    You asked: “…molecular orbital theory (where’s Charlie, anyway?). ”

    Answer: earlier this evening have just come back for three weeks in Cundys Harbor, Maine. Ten feet from the tidal Atlantic Ocean enjoying two pound fresh-from-the-trap “Lobstah” at $3.75 per pound, two pound minimums.

    The above paragraph puts the world in perspective.

    The Variation Principle and linear properties of The Wave Function are what you are groping for. Remember LCAO is Linear Combination of Atomic Orbitals…plus some neat calculus to ensure you have a energy minimum/maximum on your hands.

    Pass the Butter, Beer, and Beast, Grand-daughter.

  20. Occam's Beard Says:

    Charlie, sure, I meant what motivated Mulliken to develop the LCAO-MO method. LCAO-MO is usually taught as a deus ex machina approach to bonding, as though Mulliken one day, for no apparent reason, jumped up, yelled “Eureka!” and start making linear combinations of atomic orbitals. Backing out the historical context of why he and others were working on this makes a lot more sense to beginning students.

    In an abstract way, a similar problem arises in some historical accounts of WWII in the Pacific. Why did we invade Guadalcanal, of all the God forsaken places on earth? At first glance, it looks like a peculiar choice, if one doesn’t know the threat the Japanese advance posed to the supply lines to Australia. THEN it makes perfect sense.

  21. sheldan Says:

    I may be showing my age, but I still remember when the periodic table stopped at Lw (Lawrencium, element 103). Element 104 had just been discovered, allegedly by Russians who gave it a Russian name. I think element 104 also has an American name, which shows that the Cold War was going strong at the time.

    Interesting that they decided on the new system of naming future elements with three letters, after the number (effectively, element 108 is literally “108-ium”!).

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

  22. Occam's Beard Says:

    I may be showing my age, but I still remember when the periodic table stopped at Lw (Lawrencium, element 103).

    FWIW, I don’t bother keeping up with any of the transuranium elements, and I’m a chemist. If you can’t produce more than a couple of dozen atoms of an element, I say the hell with it.

  23. Judy C. Giddens Says:

    Very nice! it makes me proud to be a student of chemistry. Universe has systematize everything very clearly. When i think about my past, Oh really it brings a slight smile on my face.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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