Monday, February 1, 2010

More Elemental Musings

The single most important piece of scientific literature is, in my opinion, the periodic table.  Those who understand what it means, and what it actually implies, have mastered more science than most professors ever will.  This may sound like an exaggeration, but come with me and I think that I can prove it to you.
         Translator, writing for The Daily Kos

The Dailykos!!  Whoever "Translator" is (and he reminds me of Derek Lowe), he or she put together a wonderful historical synopsis of the periodic table. I highly recommend reading at least the historical section to get a flavor for what went into the development of the periodic table. 

I would add just one thing to Translator's fine discourse, and that is that the modern appearance of the periodic table might lead one to think that there are gaps between elements:

For example, look at the huge gap between H and He, which essentially spans the whole table.  Look in particular at the gap on moving from 4 to 5, ie., beryllium (Be) to boron (B). Why aren't there elements filling those gaps?  The answer (besides the "cute" one that there are no whole numbers between 1 and 2 nor between 4 and 5) is that those gaps are a consequence of the two dimensional presentation of the table which has become standard. While the table doesn't map anything physical in the sense of a photograph of unseen things, it might be useful to think of the gaps in the periodic table in the same way that certain flat maps depict a spherical earth:

In essence, what the periodic table represents cannot be perfectly rendered in two dimensions!
There have been numerous alternative presentations of the periodic table: spirals, pyramids, spheres, etc, none of which ever caught on as the iconic image above did. Several of the alternatives are presented here.


  1. Interesting. I didn't know there was a reason behind the table looking like it did. Just thought it was more visually appealing than a solid block of data.

  2. Pete,
    Mentally erase the symbols, H, He, Li, Be, for a moment, leaving only the atomic numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4... There are two interrelated themes within the table: the nuclear and the electronic: The nuclear part pertains to the monotonic, stepwise increase in atomic number: adding one proton and variable numbers of neutron to the nucleus in steady, uninterrupted fashion: 1, 2, 3...
    The dominating theme of the table is a depiction of how the electrons surrounding the nucleus arrange themselves as the mass increases monotonically. They organize themselves in an orderly, non intuitive way, filling shells and subshells and literally dictating chemistry.
    We have a number for each integer in the table and call it by its chemical symbol.

  3. Wait, he reminds you of a crappy ex Red Sox pitcher.

  4. Well Obama reminds me of Oil Can Boyd so there you go.

  5. Swanwick wrote one more hydrogen story, here.