Effective elements: some great periodic tables

My all-time favourite scarf (made by Rooby Lane on Etsy from a periodic table by Science Notes)

I’m a chemist (no, really? I hear you cry) and like all chemists, I love the periodic table. Why do we love this weird grid of boxes and letters and numbers? Because it’s awesome, that’s why.

No, really, it is. Can physics or biology summarise pretty much everything important about their subject with one, single page of information? (Hint: nope.) But chemists have been able to do just that for the best part of 150 years.

The person we have to thank (mostly) for this brilliant bit of insight is one Dmitri Mendeleev. He was born in Siberia in February 1834 (there’s a bit of an issue with the exact date due to the Russian switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1918 but most sources seem to have settled on the 8th). He was the youngest of more than 10 children, but the really incredible bit about his story is that when he was just 15 years old his mother took him to Moscow, a journey of best part of 1000 miles. There were, at this time, some freshly-built stretches of railway, but make no mistake, it would’ve been a long and difficult trip.

Mendeleev’s mother wanted her youngest son to attend the University of Moscow. But when they got there, the University refused to accept him. So they moved on to the Main Pedagogical Institute in Saint Petersburg, which fortunately had more sense.

Mendeleev’s life is actually pretty colourful and makes for a great story (why is there no film??), but I won’t go into any more detail here, except to say that he gave a formal presentation on his periodic table of the elements in 1869. (Oh, and he also helped to found the first oil refinery in Russia, and did a lot of work on the technique of industrial fractional distillation, which literally no one ever seems to mention.)

So the periodic table is amazing, and if anything its creator was even more so. But what I actually want to do in this post is list some of my most favourite periodic table sites. There are few out there, and they contain a host of useful information above and beyond the standard atomic weight, atomic mass type-stuff. So, without further ado…

  • Sir Martyn Poliakoff recording for Periodic Videos

    Periodic Videos – produced by Nottingham University, this has a video for each element in the periodic table, including the newest ones. The videos all feature the gloriously-haired Sir Martyn Poliakoff and are great fun to watch.

  • Science Notes periodic tables – if you ever need a high-resolution periodic table, fancy making your laptop background into a periodic table (surprisingly handy, actually), or just want to refer to their simple-but-effective interactive version, this is a great place to start (my scarf, pictured above, was made from a print of Science Notes’ 118 Element Periodic Table Poster with Hubble Stars and Nebula). 
  • The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Periodic Table – particularly useful for students, as you can mouseover each element and key information such as electronic configuration appears in a little box on the same page – no clicking required. It’s really fast and easy to use. And if you do click on an element, a host of extra information appears above and beyond the usual history and uses, such as links to podcasts, videos and information about supply risk.
  • MPSE: Merck’s Periodic Table of the Elements – if you want a periodic table app for your mobile device, this is a great one. It’s quick to load to beautiful to look at. Available for Apple and Android devices.
  • Nature Chemistry: In Your Element – a periodic table of interesting and insightful essays (and I’m not just saying this because I wrote one of them) about the different elements.The most recent piece is on vanadium.
  • The Periodic Table of Tech – this one is particularly focused on what the elements are used for. You might learn, for example, that californium isotopes are used to detect landmines, or that zirconium isn’t just good for making cubic zirconia gems; it’s also used in nuclear fuel rods. What I particularly like about this is that it has all the information on one page, so it’s particularly easy to browse.

There will be many others which I haven’t mentioned. If you have a different favourite, do comment below!


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Why is chemistry the forgotten science?

I recently had the privilege of talking to radio DJ and author Simon Mayo and he asked me what I thought of his book, Itch.  I said I loved it, and I really do.  (I have yet to read the sequel, Itch Rocks – released at the end of February – but it’s definitely on my list.)  I like Itch for many reasons.  I liked it because the lead character is a teenage boy who’s interested in science and actually finds arty subjects rather difficult, and yet is not a nerdy stereotype.  I like it because there was lots of action and an interesting story, coupled with just the right amount of research.  I liked it because the main female character is strong-willed, principled and absolutely doesn’t get involved in any sort of love triangle (this is not, to paraphrase my favourite film, ‘a kissing book’).  And most of all, I like it because it’s science fiction about chemistry.chemistry

As a chemist, it’s long seemed to me that, when it comes to the media and fiction, it’s the forgotten science. I can think of any number of famous science fiction works that hinge around physics and astronomy.  I can think of things based on biology.  I can even recall one or two that have both, for example Christian Cantrell’s Containment, a novel about a brilliant young scientist living on Venus and working on artificial photosynthesis.  But when it comes to chemistry I’m struggling.  Poisoning turns up in quite a few murder mysteries of course, as does forensics.  I suppose you could argue that some of the medical thrillers with plots that hinge around drugs might count.   Nanotechnology, as in Prey by Michael Crichton, is often thought of as a chemical field in the real world (TM), but thrillers on the subject tend to be less about matter on the atomic scale and more about improbably aggressive tiny robots.

It’s not just fiction.  In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of science programming, particularly on the BBC.  This is fabulous, but the large majority has been focused on physics and biology.  Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage often takes great glee in ignoring, and even ridiculing, chemical disciplines (I still listen to it mind you, in the manner of someone poking at a sore tooth).  The current run of BBC’s Horizon has exactly one episode (The Truth about Taste) that might be considered to have a chemistry focus.  At the end of last year Dara O Briain’s Science Club managed a whole series of six episodes without a single one on a chemical topic.  And so on and so on.  At least the most recent Royal Institution Christmas Lectures redressed the balance a bit, even if they were tucked away on BBC Four.  And as I posted recently, the quiz show Pointless seems to be quite fond of chemistry as a topic, so that’s something.

But why the general lack of chemistry?  Especially when you consider that the A-level is not only desirable but an essential requirement for so many degrees, including medicine, veterinary science, dentistry and pharmacy.  Whereas physics and, perhaps more surprisingly, biology aren’t. Since it’s so important you’d imagine there would be a bit more enthusiasm for the subject.

Is it linked to the background of the presenters?  Dara O Briain, in a previous life, studied mathematics and theoretical physics.  Professor Brian Cox, presenter of the Infinite Monkey Cage, is of course a physicist.  The only regular presenter I can think of with anything resembling a chemistry degree (actually biochemistry) is Liz Bonnin of Bang Goes the Theory.  But surely it isn’t impossible to find a chemist capable of presenting?  Peter Wothers did a cracking job with the Royal Institution lectures for starters.  And surely, surely, there’s room for the fabulously eccentric-looking Martyn Poliakoff somewhere?  (Please go and look at The Periodic Table of Videos if you have five minutes – it’s brilliant.)

But I’m not sure that’s the problem.  I imagine presenters largely talk about what they’re told to talk about.  No, I fear it might be simply the fact that chemistry is a bit, well, hard.

Early in my teaching career an exasperated A-level student complained, “miss, I thought chemistry was all setting fire to things and explosions and stuff, but it’s mostly just numbers and symbols”.  I’m afraid there’s some truth to this, particularly by the time we get to A-level chemistry, although I do like to set fire to things wherever possible (in a controlled manner of course – I’m not an arsonist, I swear).

I often joke with students that chemists use equations because we’re lazy.  For example, take this very simple experiment that you probably do every day if you have a gas cooker – it’s what happens when you set fire to methane:

CH4 + 2O2 –> CO2 + 2H2O

Now let’s write that in words: One molecule of methane, which contains one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms, reacts with exactly two molecules of diatomic oxygen irreversibly to produce exactly one molecule of carbon dioxide, which contains one atom of carbon bonded to two oxygen atoms, and two molecules of water, which contains two atoms of hydrogen bonded to an oxygen atom. 

Phew.  You can see why chemists prefer the equation.  Imagine if we had to write something like that every time we wanted to describe a reaction?  We’d never get anywhere.  Plus, once you understand them, the equations allow you to see similarities between different reactions that could be easily missed otherwise.  The symbols are essential.  But they’re also a bit, well, impenetrable.  A TV show with lots of chemical symbols would be as impossible to understand as one presented in French for many, and rather more difficult to subtitle.

So yes, it can look a bit scary.  But it’s not impossible.  After all you need advanced mathematics to understand physics in depth, but plenty of physics programmes explain their subject matter without even hinting at the dreaded doublet of differentiation and integration.  A good chemist can make the subject accessible with a bit of creativity.

It’s not as if there’s not lots of interesting material (pun entirely intended).  Chemistry is the science behind explosives, cooking, medicines, bubbles, pigments and poisons.  It has a fascinating history, populated with characters such as Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare who also solved the problem of global food security, Glenn Seaborg who discovered ten (ten!) of those elements that loiter at the bottom of the periodic table, Henry Cavendish – discoverer of hydrogen and famously so shy he was unable to talk to women, Antoine Lavoisier, tax collector, traitor and the person who named both oxygen and hydrogen and let’s not forget Carl Wilhelm Scheele, discoverer of some of the most dangerous substances known to man.  There are endless stories that could be told, from the legal case of the Carbolic Smoke Ball to Kekule’s dreams of snakes eating their own tails, to bizarre medical practices such as antimony pills and the mystery of the Bradford Sweets poisoning.

If Simon Mayo can write a series of highly successful novels featuring chemistry aimed at young adults, it must surely be possible to make a few more shows on the topic.  So writers, editors and producters I beseech you not to be scared of chemistry.  Find yourself someone with a bit of knowledge in the area and get on with it.  For whatever chemistry is, it’s far from boring.

Do you know of any chemistry science fiction I’ve missed?  Have you got any favourite chemical stories that you think should be on telly?  Please tell me about them!