The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance

The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance

The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance

The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance


The periodic table is one of the most potent icons in science. It lies at the core of chemistry and embodies the most fundamental principles of the field. The one definitive text on the development of the periodic table by van Spronsen (1969), has been out of print for a considerable time. The present book provides a successor to van Spronsen, but goes further in giving an evaluation of the extent to which modern physics has, or has not, explained the periodic system. The book is written in a lively style to appeal to experts and interested lay-persons alike.

The Periodic Table begins with an overview of the importance of the periodic table and of the elements and it examines the manner in which the term 'element' has been interpreted by chemists and philosophers. The book then turns to a systematic account of the early developments that led to the classification of the elements including the work of Lavoisier, Boyle and Dalton and Cannizzaro. The precursors to the periodic system, like D bereiner and Gmelin, are discussed. In chapter 3 the discovery of the periodic system by six independent scientists is examined in detail.

Two chapters are devoted to the discoveries of Mendeleev, the leading discoverer, including his predictions of new elements and his accommodation of already existing elements. Chapters 6 and 7 consider the impact of physics including the discoveries of radioactivity and isotopy and successive theories of the electron including Bohr's quantum theoretical approach. Chapter 8 discusses the response to the new physical theories by chemists such as Lewis and Bury who were able to draw on detailed chemical knowledge to correct some of the early electronic configurations published by Bohr and others.

Chapter 9 provides a critical analysis of the extent to which modern quantum mechanics is, or is not, able to explain the periodic system from first principles. Finally, chapter 10 considers the way that the elements evolved following the Big Bang and in the interior of stars. The book closes with an examination of further chemical aspects including lesser known trends within the periodic system such as the knight's move relationship and secondary periodicity, as well at attempts to explain such trends.


As long as chemistry is studied there will be a periodic table.
And even if someday we communicate with another part of
the universe, we can be sure that one thing that both cul
tures will have in common is an ordered system of the ele
ments that will be instantly recognizable by both intelligent
life forms.

J. Emsley, The Elements

The periodic table of the elements is one of the most powerful icons in science: a single document that captures the essence of chemistry in an elegant pattern. Indeed, nothing quite like it exists in biology or physics, or any other branch of science, for that matter. One sees periodic tables everywhere: in industrial labs, workshops, academic labs, and of course, lecture halls.


It is sometimes said that chemistry has no deep ideas, unlike physics, which can boast quantum mechanics and relativity, and biology, which has produced the theory of evolution. This view is mistaken, however, since there are in fact two big ideas in chemistry. They are chemical periodicity and chemical bonding, and they are deeply interconnected.

The observation that certain elements prefer to combine with specific kinds of elements prompted early chemists to classify the elements in tables of chemical affinity. Later these tables would lead, somewhat indirectly, to the discovery of the periodic system, perhaps the biggest idea in the whole of chemistry. Indeed, periodic tables arose partly through the attempts by Dimitri Mendeleev and numerous others to make sense of the way in which particular elements enter into chemical bonding.

The periodic table of the elements is a wonderful mnemonic and a tool that serves to organize the whole of chemistry. All of the various periodic tables that have been produced are attempts to depict the periodic system. The periodic system is so fundamental and all pervasive in the study of chemistry, as well as in pro-

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