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Happy 150th, Periodic Table!

Exploring the wonder of the organized elements.

In my high school there were two large printed charts on the wall: the QWERTY keyboard and the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. The QWERTY chart taught us to type on typewriters (and now on computers) without looking at the keys. The keys were set in this particular, strange order to slow down typists on early models of the typewriter so that the mechanical keys would not jam; this ordering became the industry standard (largely due to the Remington typewriter). 

The Periodic Table has a more meaningful order, having been proposed first by Dmitri Mendeleev 150 years ago as a way to organize the chemical elements. In fact, Mendeleev’s method of organizing our world’s elements is considered so important that the United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. 

The Periodic Table orders the elements by the number of protons in its nucleus (it starts with hydrogen, which has 1 proton; oxygen is in the second row, with 8 protons; currently, the largest known element is Oganesson, with 118 protons). Additionally, there are neutrons in the nucleus, and the combination of protons and neutrons gives each element its atomic weight (e.g., hydrogen has no neutrons so its mass, 1+0, is just above 1; oxygen usually has 8 neutrons so its mass, 8+8, is just under 16). Often there are multiple numbers of neutrons paired with a given number of protons, and these variants are called isotopes. Each element has around the nucleus a number of electrons in “shells” that normally equals the number of protons. The elements in a given column have similar chemical properties because of the way the electrons are organized. Each row of the table has a specific number of electron shells in which the electrons are found.

The King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (at The King’s University in Edmonton), in conjunction with the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, has developed a wonderful online version of the Periodic Table. It shows the various isotopes of each element and has numerous teaching tools to show why isotopes are important. This table can be found at isotopesmatter.com and is well worth a visit.

NEW BEAUTY
What is amazing about this Periodic Table is that 150 years after it was first suggested, we are still discovering things about the order and nature of the elements, and these discoveries are being integrated with for example work on quantum physics. The table is still central to our understanding of the way the individual elements of God’s creation are ordered. 

While the Periodic Table is complex, its regularities speak with a powerful voice to the order and predictability of the world God has called into being. For example, the commonalities of physical and chemical properties are evident down each column, such as the noble gases in the righthand column: all colourless, odourless gases that are relatively inactive chemically, ranging from helium to radon.

You don’t have to be a scientist to look out at the world God has given us and see its immense beauty, evident in the diversity of plants, the colours of the sunset, the majesty of the mountains and the power of the sea. But scientists also see the world’s beauty on a different level: in the complexity of the structure behind the visible world. Nature is profoundly complex and always interesting, and this is something demonstrated in the Periodic Table. God has given us considerable richness to explore in the way his creation is structured. I thank our God that we have not yet discovered all that can be seen and found in his creation. Each day gives us scientists new beauty to explore. 

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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