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Vol. 27 No. 6
November-December 2005

Bookworm | Books and publications hot off the press.
See also www.iupac.org/publications

The Periodic Table: Into the 21st Century

Dennis Rouvray and Bruce King (editors)
Research Studies Press, Baldock, England, 2004
ISBN 0-86380-292-3
Pp xix + 396

reviewed by Peter Atkins

My first thought on opening this book was that, because the periodic table is discussed to exhaustion in just about every lecture room throughout the world on just about every day of the year, then there is little need for an international conference on it. Moreover, apart from a few ripples of discussion that have passed through the pages of CI over the past few months (relating to the position of hydrogen), and the slow growth of the bottom row as new elements are made and recognized, surely there is nothing more to be said? In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by most of the articles.

First, a few facts. This book is a collection of presentations made at a conference of the same title held in the Kananaskis region of Alberta, not far from Banff, in July 2003. There are 13 chapters, covering a wide range of aspects of the table, ranging from its history to more recondite aspects of the atomic structures that it in effect portrays.

Dennis Rouvray kicks off with an account of fact and fable in the story of the periodic table, including an account of the various alternatives, the various discoverers of the periodic table, such as de Chancourtois and his famous “telluric screw” of 1862, Odling’s table of 1864, and the less-known Gustavus Hinrichs and his table of 1869. He with whom we normally associate the formulation of the table, Mendeleev, came later to the game, with his first table in 1869. Mendeleev is famous for using his table to make three spectacularly accurate predictions (of the elements later to be called gallium, germanium, and scandium), but Rouvray points out that he actually made around 20 predictions, with most proving to be either lucky guesses or completely wrong. Thus, quietly and benignly forgotten are his insistence that there is a series of elements of atomic weight less than that of hydrogen (including newtonium of atomic weight 0.17 and coronium of atomic weight 0.4). He also proposed the existence of six new elements between hydrogen and lithium. Rouvray goes on to point out that none of the discoverers of the periodic table received a Nobel Prize: Mendeleev came close (losing out to Henri Moissan and fluorine in 1906, by a vote of 5:4), and died the following year.

Mendeleev moves to center stage in Michael Gordin’s contribution on the short happy life of his, Mendeleev’s Periodic Law, which is a biographical account of Mendeleev’s life and in particular the genesis of the table. For obvious reasons my heart warmed to his passage about textbooks being much maligned as a scientific genre and the undervaluing of their contribution to science: Mendeleev might never have formulated his table if he had not been grappling with the problem of organizing his The Principles of Chemistry (Osnovy Khimii) in 1868/69, which he realized was becoming a rambling compendium of data and needed a system of organization. This long contribution explores the “eka-elements” in more detail and gives a fascinating insight into Mendeleev’s thinking.

The historical analysis of the formulation of the periodic table is taken further in the contribution by Masanori Kaji, who provides a useful analysis of the efforts of the main contributors. Hinrichs he places at the foot of the heap, as a representative of the group of researchers in the 1850s who sought numerical patterns in atomic weights. Odling is just a little higher up the heap: Kaji classifies him as someone who considered his table merely as a convenient way to arrange the elements. At level three lie de Chancourtois and Newlands, who understood the significance of the table and speculated about the existence of a periodic law. At the apex, at level four, stands Mendeleev, who understood the complex nature of the periodic law and used it effectively (but not, as we have seen, always with correct outcome). Lothar Mayer, Kaji asserts, somehow managed to span all four levels as his contribution evolved.

Michael Laing and then Eric Scerri survey the variety of portrayals of the periodic table, which still provide a good romping ground for chemists. Readers of this journal will know that suggestions have been made about the position of hydrogen (in the position adopted by Linus Pauling in his textbook); they will probably warm less to Scerri’s location for helium among the alkaline earth metals and will probably wish to take issue with what he calls “the tyranny of the chemist.”

From chapter six on, we move from history to chemistry, with several chapters more reminiscent of freshman chemistry textbooks. Thus, Geoffrey Rayner-Canham surveys the properties of the elements in the context of the table and identifies patterns richer than the consanguinities of groups and periods. Bruce king goes on to describe the more recondite applications of the table in the context of metallurgy, and Helen Aspinall reviews the chemistry of the lanthanoids.

Where will it all end? Paul Karol points out that on the average, a new element is found every two and a half years, which suggests that at the end of this century there will be around 150 known elements. This reaching out into the unknown generates its own controversies, such as the acceptability of evidence for the creation of a new element and, sometimes with more vitriol, the naming of the element. Karol describes in detail his version of the arguments that took place when names were suggested for the transfermiums, particularly element 106. He concludes on a more conciliatory note, pointing out that IUPAC was shaken by the outrage within the global nuclear community and that “the situation has since settled down and changed enormously for the better.”

I do not have space to describe the more theoretic approaches typical of the remaining chapters of the book, which deal with topics such as relativity (Krishnan Balasubramanian), group theory (Maurice Kibler), a variety of rules based on quantum numbers (Valentin Ostrovsky), and the extension of the concepts of periodicity of elements to that of benzenoid hydrocarbons (Jerry Dias). These are of a more specialist character, and show that the table can be mined for deep understanding as well as used for practical applications.

Overall, I warmly recommend this book for the accounts it provides in the early chapters of the historical background and the illumination it gives to the struggles and controversies that led to the current, evolving form of the table.

Peter Atkins <peter.atkins@lincoln.ox.ac.uk> is a professor at the Lincoln College in Oxford, UK, and is chairman of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education.


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