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The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance

Hal Harris's picture
Sun, 10/01/2006 - 01:00 -- Hal Harris

A copy of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements hangs in virtually every classroom in which chemistry is taught, and it represents one of the great accomplishments of science. I can think of no other such concise and profound consolidation of scientific knowledge. Yet, its very familiarity leads students (and often their teachers!) not to appreciate the rich intellectual and philosophical history that brought it to its present form. Philosopher of chemistry Eric Scerri has reexamined the steps and the missteps, the breakthroughs and the dead ends that the story weaves the through the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The goal was tantalizing; from the first quantitative measurements by Dalton, Boyle, Gay-Lussac and Lavoisier, experiments pointed to an underlying structure of matter that causes regularity in chemical results. However, the discovery of that cause was elusive; not only were the reported equivalent weights often erroneous, but it was not clear which species were ultimately fundamental or what to make of variations in combining ratios. Some grand and enticing ideas turned out to be red herrings; the triads proposed by Kremers and others, and Prout's hypothesis that elements were a consequence of combining a single fundamental entity formed the basis for many a misguided inquiry. Ironically, these ideas were largely vindicated. Prout's fundamental entity turned out to be the nuclear charge represented by the proton, and the triad idea works with about half of the possible candidates because of the structure of electronic shells. Scerri gives due credit to the amateur scientist Anton van den Broek, who was the first to propose that the fundamental organizing principle of the Table was not atomic weight, but atomic number. This book can enrich your teaching.

Pick Attribution: 

Eric Scerri

Publication Date: 
Sunday, January 1, 2006
Price: 
$35.00