The Periodic Table Upended

By Ms. Roberts

The periodic table of elements has served the field of chemistry well for 150 years, but there are other options out there. Some scientists are now pushing its limits.

Devised in 1869 by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, the periodic chart is a 2-dimensional array of chemical elements ordered by atomic number and arranged 18 across by orbitals. It is considered one of the most important achievements in modern science. The schema of patterns and trends enables scientists to predict elemental properties, reactivities, and even new elements. The position of an element in the table can reveal a lot of things about it, such as whether it’s metal or not or if it’s abundant on earth or not. This original form has remained largely unchanged for the past 150 years, except for the addition of new elements that have been discovered, although generations of chemists have made attempts to improve it or just make it more fun.

Recently, in the May issue of Nature Chemistry, a group of  chemists and psychologists at British universities proposed turning the periodic table on its head. They asserted that rotating it 180 degrees about a horizontal axis would make it more like a traditional graph so that values increase from bottom to top. Most of the properties would then increase from bottom to top, including atomic number, atomic mass, atomic radius, maximum oxidation state and reactivity. Despite the inversion, each element still has all of the same neighbors that it had before, only now the chart shows the elements proceeding upwards as they gathered atomic weight and complexity. This new form might be easier for chemistry students to interpret and understand.

On another note, have you ever read The Periodic Table by Primo Levi? Published in Italy in 1975, it’s a collection of 21 autobiographical stories that each use a chemical element as a starting point, covering everything from Levi’s childhood and education and his work as a professional chemist to his life in and after Auschwitz. It was in fact chemistry that helped him survive the Holocaust. Because he was a trained chemist, he was deemed valuable enough to be slave labor for a German rubber factory.  It became a critical and commercial success when the first American version was published in 1984, and in 2006, The Periodic Table was listed by London’s Royal Institution as among the best science books ever written.

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