Roman Mars(RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars
RM: Everybody recognizes it when they see it.
Sam Kean(SK): It sort of has a castle-with-turrets look. On the left and the right-hand side, there are some taller towers and then it sort of dips in the middle.
RM: It’s the periodic table of elements
SK: The bricks of the tower are sort of individual elements. All of the 118 elements that scientists know exist. And the way they’re arranged on the table is that elements that have very similar properties and characteristics
RM: Similar properties like melting points and similar chemical reactions with other elements, are in the same vertical column
SK: Same vertical column on the table.
RM: The fellow I’m talking to is Sam Kean.
SK: My name is Sam Kean. The book is The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.
RM: The Periodic table is a strange case of design duality. It’s a design of both extreme success and I think a little bit of failure. Let’s do the failure first.
SK: You know, it’s different than other scientific icons in that it’s hard to just look at it and get information at a glance from it.
RM: Even though it probably hung in front of you every day that you went to school, my guess is very little of its information really sunk in.
SK: One of the bad designs of it. It’s not something that’s intuitive until you’ve done a lot of work, which, I guess doesn’t make it all that intuitive.
RM: So that’s the bad part. But the impenetrability is far outweighed by its beauty and concision and predictive power. And here’s where we should introduce the hero of the story.
SK: The hero of the story is Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian scientist.
RM: Mendeleev wasn’t the first to come up with a periodic system. There are five other before him. But he’s still the periodic table mac daddy.
SK: He came up with a design that incorporated more elements than the other scientists could. And he also knew enough to predict that there were holes on the periodic table.
RM: He left gaps.
SK: That would be filled by later elements that people discovered. So he knew enough to be able to predict the properties of new elements based on where exactly the holes were.
RM: This was huge.
SK: That’s why he gets more credit than the other five scientists do.
RM: Mendeleev loved his table, but everyone else was about to discover how awesome it was when the first gap of the table was filled in with an element newly christened “Gallium.”
SK: This was discovered in 1875 by a Frenchman.
RM: And Gallium filled in the gap right below aluminum. And because of that.
SK: Mendeleev said should have properties like aluminum.
RM: But the French scientists who discovered and named gallium found that the melting point was different than was Mendeleev predicted using the table.
SK: And Mendeleev came back and said “No I don’t think that’s right. You better check your results again,” which is pretty insulting to say to another scientist.
RM: Mendeleev was not above insulting anybody.
SK: And after another year or so, it turned out that Mendeleev was correct and the Frenchman had to retract his results.
RM: And the entire scientific world of chemistry was astounded that Mendeleev, sitting in his office in St. Petersburg
SK: He’s never seen the metal before. He knew nothing about the new element.
RM: But he had been able to see the properties of gallium more clearly than the person who had actually discovered it in Paris, who had actually held it in his hand.
SK: Just because of the table. Because he knew exactly where it was on the table and what properties it should have.
RM: That’s when the periodic table stopped being just a clever and nice-looking arrangement of elements
SK: And really became a scientific tool that had real predictive power.
RM: But for most of us, who know nothing of the elements on the table, which I think is most of us, it’s major impact is as an object of art. A scientific icon. A poster to hang up between The Smiths and REM. The infographic apotheosis.
SK: This moment right now is especially intriguing when you’re looking at the design of the periodic table because last spring, scientists announced the discovery of an element on the bottom row. It was element 117
RM: Whose temporary name is “Ununseptium.” One one seven. Classic.
SK: And that actually completed the seventh row of the periodic table. It sort of squared it off in the bottom right corner. And this is the only time in history that we’ve ever had a complete and full periodic table. The rest of the elements were discovered in pretty haphazard order. So there are always gaps or holes. But right now we have a full, complete, and very attractive periodic table.
RM: So if you like your periodic table squared off and tidy, well this is the time to be alive, my friend.
SK: And given the fact that the elements along the very bottom row are very fragile, scientists don’t know if they’ll be able to complete the eighth row if that ever gets started.
RM: So scientists may be able to create one or two more elements to start a new row- and “create” here is the correct word because these big new elements are made by smashing together other elements in a lab- but Sam Kean doubts they’ll be able to manufacture one that will fit into each and every column. So.
SK: So right now is not only the only time we’ve ever had a complete periodic table, but it could be the only real complete periodic table we’ll ever have.
RM: 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar: making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and The Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org
Roman Mars(RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars