The Cheat Sheet

The table that helps us make sense of the universe

Venky Vembu | Updated on February 13, 2019

Some new product at Ikea?

As if any piece of furniture can help us make sense of anything, much less the universe.

But you mentioned a table…

Not just any table. I’m talking about ‘The Table’, which brought order to the universe of elements and helped scientists advance the frontiers of knowledge.

Is there one such?

Most definitively. I speak, of course, of the Periodic Table of chemical elements, the tabular display of chemical elements that we may have referred to during our school-day chemistry lessons. The table is about to cross an important milestone.

What milestone is that?

On Sunday, February 17, the table turns 150 years old. The Periodic Table of Elements was first formulated by Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev in 1869. Although the table, as he drew it up, was incomplete, it was his insight that cracked a scientific puzzle and helped sort chemical elements according to their properties, and helped discover new elements.

I hear he wasn’t the first to draw up such a table…

True, down the ages, scientists have attempted to classify the elements in various ways: as far back as in the 5th-6th century BCE, Greek scientist Pythagoras — who famously propounded the square-on-the-hypotenuse theorem — drew up a rudimentary table of “elements”. But that effort was tainted by his idiosyncrasies.

Tell me more.

Pythagoras also headed a ‘cult’ that worshipped numerical order, and considered numbers as elements. More bizarrely, the cult members were forbidden from coming into contact with beans, which he believed contained the souls of dead people. According to some accounts, when opponents of his cult attempted to lynch him, Pythagoras escaped, but when he came upon a bean field, he stopped — out of respect for the souls of the dead — and allowed himself to be lynched.

What a cuckoo!

Men of science can sometimes be batty. But I digress: in the 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier, considered the ‘father of modern chemistry’, charted out a list of the 33 elements that were then known of, but even that was very basic. Interesting trivia: in 1794, he was guillotined for tax fraud and for selling adulterated tobacco!

Scientists had it rough!

You bet! Then in 1863, British chemist John Newlands drew up a table of elements arranged in order of their relative atomic masses, and framed his ‘Law of Octaves’, theorising that elements follow an eight-step cyclical pattern, like musical notes do. The octave theory was disproved in his time, although Newlands was still acknowledged as first to advance the idea of periodic repetition. Mendeleev took it a step further — using a pack of cards!

Surely you jest!

Not at all. In Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything, science teacher Tim James records that Mendeleev made a deck of playing cards with elements instead of suits, and invented a version of solitaire based on chemical properties. On February 17, 1869, after playing the game non-stop for three days and nights, he collapsed from exhaustion, but had a vivid dream in which the cards dropped into place perfectly, “revealing the pattern for which he had been searching.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Or chemistry…

Perhaps. The periodic law that Mendeleev propounded states: “The elements, if arranged according to their atomic weights, exhibit an evident periodicity of properties.” It opened a whole new world in scientists’ understanding of chemical elements and their properties.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on February 13, 2019

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