Decoding the periodic table

For all the humanities students who left physics behind aged 16. This one’s for you.

what does the periodic table mean?

Have you ever wondered why the periodic table is called the periodic table, or how the elements that are the building blocks of our world are named the way they are?   Well, neither had I.  However, I’ve always been fascinated by the periodic table itself and the discoveries of what makes it possible for us to exist, so I thought I’d delve into it a little further.  ‘Can of worms,’ you say?  Surely not.

For a start, I had no idea that the periodic table was so logical.  I mean, physics? Logical? Not according to my 16-year-old self.

The periodic table: it’s elementary

When people first started examining the elements and trying to categorise them, it became clear that if you listed them in order of their atomic mass, the general properties of the element would repeat every seventh one – or eighth as we now know, thanks to the subsequent discovery of the noble gases.

This is because each element can contain up to eight electrons in its outermost shell.  The number of electrons in the shell determines its place in the table, as well as some of its fundamental behaviour.  So all elements with one electron go in the first column, all elements with two go in the second column, and so on, hence ‘periodic’. I just think that’s magical.

Logical lettering

Then we come to naming the elements.  There’s the obvious naming of elements after their discoverer, hence Neptunium and Promethium, discovered by Neptune, God of the Sea, and Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods.  Both were sorely overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Physics in my opinion.

Alfred Nobel

Location, location, location

Did you know that there are four elements named after a tiny mining village in Sweden called Ytterby? (This is actually true, unlike the last ‘fact’ – the names are ytterbium, yttrium, erbium and terbium.)

There are other elements that are named after the place of their discovery, notably helium, after Helios (the sun).  I did wonder how that was possible, unless I missed something, humans have not yet landed on the sun.  However, French astronomer Pierre-Jules- César Janssen discovered evidence for its existence while studying a solar eclipse in 1868.

So there you have it.  In the spirit of Breaking Bad’s now ubiquitous title sequence, I think we should all immediately get t-shirts with Tantalum (Ta)ke and Nobelium (No)te on it.

Get on it!
Words by Transcriber Rachael

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