Editor’s Note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of “The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind” and produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In October 2015, YouTube host Mitchell Moffit released a song called “The Periodic Table Song” on the AsapScience channel, which started with the catchy lyrics: “There’s hydrogen and helium, then lithium, beryllium …” The song then went on through the entire litany of chemical elements, and science students everywhere began learning it as a helpful way to get them through their chemistry exams.
This wasn’t the first time a jingle has been written about the elements. In fact, a similar song was written in 1959 by Tom Lehrer. But, apart from being fun study tools, this year we have even more reason to sing songs that celebrate the chemical elements.
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the invention of the periodic table of elements, which epitomizes our modern understanding of chemistry. Displayed on the wall of chemistry classrooms, it is a vast chart of over 100 elements, which is to say the chemical building blocks of every substance you’ve ever seen.
The periodic table is organized in neat rows and columns that spell out the hidden structure of atoms and the rules that govern them. Each column represents a class of elements that react similarly. The leftmost column contains hydrogen, lithium, sodium, potassium, and other very reactive chemical elements. Mix them with water and they react violently. On the other hand, the rightmost column consists of helium, neon, argon, and a series of other elements collectively called the noble gasses. They don’t interact with other elements, which is how they got their name. The other columns each have a characteristic reactivity.
As one goes from the top row to the bottom row, the atoms of each element get heavier and heavier. This organization – the columns of similarly-reactive elements and the increase in atomic mass – are both hugely powerful clues that eventually led to our modern understanding of the atom and, indeed, of chemistry.
It was 1869 when Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev first figured it all out. He used to take what were effectively playing cards, one for each of the elements known at the time, and lay them out in different ways, trying to figure out the key patterns. He was hampered by the fact that not all of the elements had been discovered when he did his momentous work. In fact, only 63 were known at the time. Over and over again, he laid out the cards until he came upon the pattern we recognize today.
Of course, since there were undiscovered elements, sometimes he would leave a blank space where an element should be. For instance, according to the patterns he saw, there should have been elements which were chemically similar to both aluminum and silicon, but heavier. But no such elements were known.
Mendeleev published his work in 1869, first in an obscure Russian journal, which was then reprinted in the more prestigious German journal Zeitschrift für Chemie. Mendeleev’s original table is almost unrecognizable compared to the modern periodic table, but it encoded all of the key components.
Many scientists of his time were not convinced, especially because of the missing elements. Mendeleev insisted that they would be discovered and he was vindicated when gallium (the heavy version of aluminum) was discovered in 1875 and germanium (the heavy version of silicon) was discovered in 1886. Mendeleev also predicted the element that we now call scandium, which was discovered in 1879. Thus, scientists came to accept that Mendeleev was right.
To celebrate this momentous scientific achievement, the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO have proclaimed 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT2019).”
And it is hard to overstate just how important it was to work out the details of the chemical periodic table. It was a big inspiration for the development of quantum mechanics. Quite literally, the periodic table and quantum mechanics explain everything that is familiar about the world. They explain water and rock and people. They explain how the air we breathe oxygenates our lungs. They explain how fires burn and why diamonds are what they are.
Though I’m a particle physicist and I’m fascinated by the rules that govern the particles found inside atoms, it’s hard to argue against the claim that it is chemistry that has the biggest impact on our day to day lives. Even biology is explainable in terms of the chemical properties that govern the interactions of atoms. It may pain me to say it, but the study of chemistry is incredibly important to all of us. (I hope the chemistry student with whom I was housemates in graduate school doesn’t read this. He’ll never let me live it down.)
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While Mendeleev is not a household name, his impact on modern science is immeasurable and it is entirely appropriate that the world recognizes his contribution to our understanding of the world around us.
So, happy birthday to the periodic table. Rather than the traditional celebratory tune, let’s all just sing Moffit’s song instead, shall we?
“There’s hydrogen and helium, then lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon everywhere nitrogen all through the air …”