The Music of Matter: 150 years of the Periodic Table
Just as notes come together to create melodies, the elements combined form compounds
**This episode originally aired January 20, 2009.
The world, the universe, is a mess of molecules and muck. Within the chaos, though, a cosmic harmony plays the secret song of nature, and the music of matter. You just have to be able to read the music.
Contributor Ian Wilkinson unravels the universal chords as the world honours the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev's creation of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements.
Mendeleev's invention of the periodic table was an immense conceptual leap. It is one of the great achievements, not just of science, but of mankind. It classifies and clarifies all that we know of the material world, every element precisely in place. And by understanding the elements — reading the sheet music of creation — we can create all manner of things.
Just as notes can be combined to form chords and melodies and symphonies, so too can the elements be combined to form compounds, and then to make people, plants, and planets.
Most of us blithely ignore the elements once we're safely past our high school chemistry classes. But some are enthralled for life by chemistry and the periodic table.
Ian Wilkinson remembers almost gassing himself with homemade chlorine at the age of 12. Fortunately he survived —and learned to be much more careful when conducting chemical experiments. Today he has several degrees, in chemistry, biochemistry, and clinical chemistry.
He remains fascinated with the periodic table, and with other people's fascination with Mendeleev and with the creation of the table.
Guests in this episode:
- John Emsley is a science writer specializing in chemistry.
- Eric Scerri is a chemist and philosopher of science at UCLA, author of several books about the periodic table.
- The late Oliver Sacks is the author of Uncle Tungsten, about his love of chemistry. Our thanks to Eleanor Wachtel for her interview with Dr. Sacks.
More about the Periodic Table:
- The Table has inspired some very catchy music: NaCl The McGarrigle Sisters' classic song about the love between Sodium and Chlorine is on their album Pronto Monto. Mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer does a breathtaking tongue-twisting rendition of the table in The Elements. Michael Offutt's infectious Mendeleev can be heard, complete with pictures, here.
- Wikipedia has a good basic explanation and standard view of the periodic table
- The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.
- Pictures of the actual elements
- The layout of the periodic table has also inspired some unexpected tables, including baseball, sports cars and even human emotions.
** This episode was produced by Yvonne Gall and Dave Redel.