Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) guest editorial

Posted on

Scerri Eric 2017small

UCLA chemistry lecturer and author Dr Eric Scerri was invited by C&EN to write a guest editorial in celebration of the Year of the Periodic Table.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has named 2019 the year of the periodic table of chemical elements. Scerri’s guest editorial for Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) appeared in the January 1, 2018 issue.  

The year will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the table’s creation by Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev. It will also mark a number of other milestones in the history of chemistry, including the discovery of phosphorus 350 years ago, Antoine Lavoisier’s categorisation of 33 elements in 1789 and the formulation of the law of the triads by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner 190 years ago.

In addition to being a world authority on the history and philosophy of the periodic table, Scerri is the author or editor of ten books and a full-time lecturer in the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He was the historical consultant for the 2015 PBS docudrama Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements in which he is interviewed extensively about Mendeleev. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the international journal Foundations of Chemistry which covers the history and philosophy of chemistry, and chemical education. 

To learn more about Scerri, visit his website.

From Chemical and Engineering News – January 1, 2018

Periodic table turns 150 in 2019

By Eric Scerri

This is a guest editorial by Eric Scerri, a lecturer at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles and author of ‘The periodic table: its story and its significance.’

The periodic table has been described in many ways, including being chemistry’s instantly recognizable icon as well as its paradigm, meaning its organizing principle or framework. The popularity of the periodic table has never been greater among the general public, aided perhaps by the current liking for computer icons, in the more prosaic sense of the term. Popular as well as scholarly books on the periodic table are finally challenging the dominance of physics and biology in the popular science book market. It is perhaps not altogether surprising then that a proposal to make 2019 the year of the periodic table was submitted to UNESCO and accepted.

2019 will mark 150 years since the enigmatic Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev first published his influential periodic table. Although it was actually the sixth in a sequence of such tables published by a number of scientists, Mendeleev’s was the one that made the biggest impact because it was accompanied by predictions for several elements, three of which were discovered over a period of about 15 years thereafter. The discovery of gallium, germanium and scandium made Mendeleev very famous in much the same way that the confirmation of the bending of starlight would make Einstein famous some 40 years later.

The periodic table has also been given a public boost by the synthesis and, most recently, by the official naming of the last four elements that serve to complete its seventh row (nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganesson). Of course even further elements are fully expected and actively being sought for.

As I see it, the chemistry profession would do well to embrace and promote the publicity that periodic table additions bring. After all chemistry has lived in the shadow of physics and biology for far too long. More could also be done to capitalize on the periodic table in the area of chemical education. One often hears complaints from educators that chemistry is increasingly presented as the poor relation of physics. It seems to be all about orbitals, quantum mechanics, and the like. Many beginning students are alienated by this emphasis. Instead, chemistry courses could begin by emphasizing the unifying role of the periodic table as originally discovered through chemistry without the aid of physics and could then show how quantum mechanics has succeeded, to a great extent, in explaining the raison d’ être of the periodic table’s previously rather mysterious role.

But let’s get back to Mendeleev since it is his anniversary that is being celebrated. Who was this man and why did he succeed more effectively than other co-discoverers? The textbook response, as mentioned earlier, is that Mendeleev made successful predictions whereas the others failed to do so. While this may be true, other factors may also have contributed. For example, Mendeleev was working in Russia at a time when its chemical society was just getting off the ground. The society had just established a new and it actively encouraged speculations and bold ideas. Meanwhile, Lothar Meyer, Mendeleev’s most serious competitor, was working in the German chemical community, which had become highly formalized and which actively discouraged speculations in its society journals.

What makes the Mendeleev story particularly appealing is also the difficulties that he faced during his youth and even during his professional life. As a youth his doting mother took him on a long journey throughout Russia in the hope of enrolling him into a university. When he was finally admitted, it was to a teacher training college that his father had previously attended rather than the university his mother had hoped for. Such obstacles, among many others, do not appear to have hampered Mendeleev too much since he went on to make what is still the greatest discovery by any Russian scientist. Coincidentally, the year 2018 marks the discovery of the element helium, one of the noble gases that initially spelled trouble for Mendeleev’s periodic system but whose accommodation he would later claim as one of its triumphs.