Ideas

The Music of Matter: 150 years of the Periodic Table

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.
Dmitri Mendeleev's creation of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements is one of the great achievements, not just of science, but of mankind (Shutterstock)
Listen to the full episode53:58

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.

**This episode originally aired January 20, 2009.

Ideas contributor Ian Wilkinson speaks with science writer John Emsley. 1:27

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:



** This episode was produced by Yvonne Gall and Dave Redel. 

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