Ramblings about the periodic table

[Speech for the Consecutive Interpreting subject, 2007]

Periodic table beer mats.

Dear classmates, I’m going to take the advantage of the centenary of the death of Mendeleev — who must be in hell for laughing at the right theory of one of his contemporary chemists —, I resolved to ramble about the periodic table of the elements. I’m not going to tell the properties of the elements because I don’t want to be cruel to you. I’m going to make a short summary of the story of the table and to do this we’ll go some centuries back to praise those who were right and to expose those who were wrong to ridicule.

It was Democritus, a Greek thinker, who worried about the divisibility of the matter four centuries before Christ. He imagined there existed an indivisible particle, which he decided to call atom with a fine display of originality, since it means indivisible in Greek. But his idea didn’t have a deep effect and in the fifth century Empedocles invented that four elements rubbish — earth, fire, water and wind  —, which mixed to form all the substances of nature. And the great Aristotle put the icing on the cake with the fifth element, which is not a film, but the ether, which was supposed to form the stars.

Two centuries later, with such intellectual scene and as in the land of the blind the one-eyed is the king, the Arabs spread the alchemy during their conquests. But, despite everything, the utopian search for the philosopher’s stone allowed the discovery of hundreds of chemical compounds and some elements. Even so, it was not until the seventeenth century that the praiseworthy chemistry was born.

At the beginning of that century, Döbereiner, a German chemist, noticed that there were some groups of elements with similar properties. Those are what we call groups in the periodic table nowadays. Around mid-century, Newlands, an English chemist, observed that the properties of the elements were the same every eight elements if he sorted them by atomic weight. Newlands invented the periods, but the idea was rejected because it stopped working after the calcium. Finally, in 1869, Meyer and Mendeleev thought — separately — that the different periods could be different in length. Unfortunately for Meyer, Mendeleev published it first and so he is the official author of the current table.

Now the periodic table allows predicting the properties of any element, known or unknown, depending on its place in it. Moreover, these properties tend to change gradually from one end to the other of the table, what makes the analysis and comparison of elements easier. Little scientific systematization can compete with this.

And I want to take this opportunity and my recent and vilely imposed bachelorhood to offer myself to solve your doubts in the bar if any of you, preferably gifted with great kindness and better appeal, is especially interested in the chemical aspects of the table.

Thanks for listening.

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4 thoughts on “Ramblings about the periodic table

  1. I remember when I was first taught about the periodic table! In year 8 I think it was. They played a really exciting video about it.

    One interesting thing you accidentally touch upon is Greek names. Which makes me think of how Greek and Latin are used almost universally for ‘higher-level’ functions. For example, the word ‘particle’ simply means ‘little part’ or, to use a Germanic term, a ‘little bit’.

    The word ‘function’ I just used is a Latinate root. Why don’t we use something more Germanic, like ‘performance’ or ‘job’.

    Why are the Anglo Saxons so ashamed of using our own words? Why do things sound quaint, twee and at worst pathetic when we say them in a way that’s more traditionally English? It’s not like the English haven’t made our fair share of scientific advancements (betterments in knowledge).

  2. A really exciting video about the periodic table? I have to see it, I can’t believe it.

    We also have these inferiority complex in Catalan. Nobody uses ‘programari’ nor ‘maquinari’, they always say ‘software’ and ‘hardware’. They don’t use ‘coixí de seguretat’ either, it’s always ‘airbag’. Well, a few use them, but they are philologists, translators and all that abnormal linguist species.

    Maybe you use foreign words for the old concepts, but the rest of the world uses English words for the new ones.

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