It was 150 years ago that Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published his version of the Periodic Table of Elements. Its familiar pattern remains a perfect illustration of the nature of scientific progress… It is, by design, unfinished. Mendeleev created it to be updated and completed as new elements were discovered. Hanging on classroom walls, printed on the back of lab kits, from veterans such as Helium to newcomers like Oganesson, the Periodic Table of Elements is arguably the most recognizable scientific education tool to date.
Dmitri Mendeleev (Wikimedia).
To commemorate its anniversary, UNESCO named 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. Yet its storied history is not all about scientific achievement. From 1869 to date, the evolution of the periodic table reflects history, geography, linguistics and even a little magic.
People, countries, states, planets—and a rooster
The origins of certain chemical element names are logical. Fourteen commemorate scientists and other notable influencers. Einsteinium was named after Albert Einstein after it was discovered among the debris of the first hydrogen bomb explosion in 1952. Curium is a radioactive element named for Marie and Pierre Curie, pioneers in the study of radioactivity. Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron, and atomic structure expert, Niels Bohr, were similarly rewarded. The second of two woman featured, Lise Meitner—who helped discover nuclear fission—was honored when meitnerium was discovered in 1982. But the logic to these names soon ends. While science is universal, many elements were named to mark very territorial claims. The important role of French scientists in chemical breakthroughs has seen three elements named after the country—francium; lutetium, for Lutetia—the Roman name for Paris; and gallium for France’s Roman name, Gaul, derived from the Latin word, gallus, meaning rooster, the symbol of France. Lutetium was particularly controversial, since its discovery was claimed in 1907 by three different scientists, one French, one Australian and one Austrian. The Frenchman, George Urbain, published his results first and won, or we might have vindobonium instead. Most parts of our solar system are also recognized as elements. The sun, moon, Mercury, Earth, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are all included. Besides France, Poland, Japan, Russia, the US, Cyprus and Germany all have elements named after them. The US states of California and Tennessee are also given a scientific nod. ut one unlikely place has staked a particularly strong claim on the periodic table.
An unfair Ytter-bias
Seven elements can trace their names to parts of the Scandinavian countries, but four of these are named after the island of Ytterby alone, which has a high concentration of elemental ores. A small island near Stockholm, Ytterby is the richest source of elemental discoveries in the world. Its quarry was where four rare earth elements were first found, Yttrium, Ytterbium, Erbium and Terbium. They began when local geologists sent local minerals from the Ytterby mine to Johan Gadolin. This mineral named ytterbite (now known as gadolinite), contained all the elements associated with the town. Six additional elements were discovered after studying samples originally taken from Ytterby, including holmium, thulium and gadolinium. Even the aforementioned lutetium was discovered as an impurity in ytterbia.The fact that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is delivered annually in Stockholm, just 35 kilometers away, has not harmed the island’s notoriety.
Harry Potter… and the periodic table
Nicolas Flamel would likely be bemused by his own modern reputation. A 14th century French scribe, he became famous two centuries after his death when claims he had been taught surfaced the secrets of alchemy by a fellow traveller during a pilgrimage emerged. He has since been immortalized in fiction from Harry Potter to Victor Hugo, although there is no actual evidence he ever sought the philosopher’s stone. Regardless, his alleged quest to turn base metals, such as lead, into gold further fueled a legend that has obsessed many of the finest minds in scientific history. Through Ancient Egypt, the Greece of Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire, brilliant scientists searched for this fable. Even Paracelsus and Isaac Newton were obsessed with it. But the magic of some becomes the science of others. German alchemist Hennig Brand was trying to create the philosopher’s stone in 1669 by evaporating urine. Instead of gold, he eventually was left with a white chemical that glowed in the dark: phosphorus. Brand kept this rather unsavory recipe a secret for six years before it got out. Phosphorus was the first new element discovered by man through scientific experimentation. While it took decades for others to be found, it set a precedent that exploded during the 18th century with the discoveries of hydrogen, platinum, nickel, chlorine, nitrogen and many more.
Phosphorus is used to produce matches.
How high will it go?
In December 2012, the periodic table’s membership expanded from 114 to 118. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) added nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganesson as the newest super-heavy elements on the block. Some of these had been synthesized years earlier, but a waiting period has been created, including the submission of questions and suggestions from the public. However, 118 is surely not the maximum? Mendeleev’s version of the periodic table became the standard above several competitors for a number of reasons. First, classifying elements by their atomic weight proved to be a convenient and easy method. Second, where other periodic table models placed a cap on the number of elements, Mendeleev designed his to be scalable. So, how many elements might there eventually be? Some hypotheses, such as the Dirac equation and the Bohr model, put the number at 137. Richard Feynman wrote that that it would be impossible for an atom to contain more than 137 electrons. But a more modern understanding of the behavior of electrons seems to suggest the number could be as high as 173, if not more. Overall, the end of the Periodic Table of Elements may be little more than an arbitrary frontier, reflecting little more than the limit of our current scientific knowledge.
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