Chemical reactions: ‘Periodic table nerds’ celebrate its 150th birthday

  • Amherst Regional High School sophomores Grant Powicki and Sarah Donahue conduct a procedure to simulate the reaction in an automobile airbag during their honors chemistry class on Friday, March 8, 2019. 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, the 150th anniversary of its discovery by Dmitri Mendeleev. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School sophomores, from left, Grant Powicki, Sarah Donahue and Annalise Peterson calculate the specific amounts of materials needed to simulate the reaction in an automobile airbag during their honors chemistry class on Friday, March 8, 2019. 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, the 150th anniversary of its discovery by Dmitri Mendeleev. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sharon Palmer teaches an honors chemistry class at Amherst Regional High School on Friday, March 8, 2019. 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, the 150th anniversary of its discovery by Dmitri Mendeleev. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sharon Palmer teaches an honors chemistry class at Amherst Regional High School on Friday, March 8, 2019. 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, the 150th anniversary of its discovery by Dmitri Mendeleev. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students in Sharon Palmer’s honors chemistry class at Amherst Regional High School show their work in a procedure to simulate the reaction in an automobile airbag. Photographed on Friday, March 8, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School sophomores Grant Powicki and Sarah Donahue combine acetic acid (vinegar) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) in their honors chemistry class on Friday, March 8, 2019. 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, the 150th anniversary of its discovery by Dmitri Mendeleev. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School sophomore Jolie Lepere, left, and her honors chemistry classmates theorize the specific amounts of acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate needed to simulate the reaction in an automobile airbag during class on Friday, March 8, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students in Sharon Palmer's honors chemistry class at Amherst Regional High School determined specific amounts of acetic acid (vinegar) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) in a defined volume (plastic bag) to simulate the reaction in an automobile airbag. Photographed on Friday, March 8, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School science teacher Sharon Palmer helps juniors Liam Carpenter-Shulman, left, and Matt Morrin in her honors chemistry class on Friday, March 8, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2019 7:57:44 PM

AMHERST — One hundred fifty years ago, Dmitri Mendeleev published work that is now displayed on science classroom walls around the world: the periodic table of the elements.

Marking the anniversary, the United Nations named 2019 “The United Nations International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.”

But if you think the table is just wall art or a tool to be memorized, Smith College professor of chemistry Kevin Shea says, “You’re missing a lot of the interesting and fundamental science on what’s going on with these elements.”

Organized by the number of protons each element contains, the table’s power is in its predictive ability, chemists said.

Rows and columns of the table have similar properties. Shea thinks of areas of the table as certain “neighborhoods” where elements have similarities, such as how they will react.

“It’s the best graphic organizer,” said Sharon Palmer, a chemistry teacher at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School. “It has so much information on it. No matter what form of the periodic table, it tells you things about reactivity and trends and sizes. You can make so many predictions by just looking at the periodic table.”

But back in 1869, when Mendeleev came up with the idea, not as many elements had been identified. So, he left gaps in the table for those substances, explained Michael Maroney, a professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Later, when those elements were discovered, they fit right into those holes. That’s a big deal, according to Maroney.

“Probably its biggest success story is that it was hard to come up with,” he said of the table.

Now, scientists find it a helpful tool. “Chemists often carry a little periodic table in their billfold or their purse, it’s so useful,” Maroney said.

“In some ways, it’s an alphabet for nature … they spell everything,” Michael Knapp, an associate professor of chemistry at UMass, said of the elements. “That’s pretty remarkable. The table itself is nice — you can look at how these elements are related to one another.”

The traditional table that many would recognize — organized columns and rows — doesn’t necessarily need to be shaped as a rectangle. There have been other attempts at organizing it, including a spiral made up of elements, which didn’t catch on, Palmer said.

Chemists agree the table is helpful but differ when it comes to their favorite element.

Shea is an organic chemist at Smith. “We are required to say our favorite element is carbon,” he said. “Pretty much all we do is chemistry on carbon-based molecules … Life is based on it. There are so many neat things you can do by rearranging carbon in different ways.”

Palmer has a particular draw to colorful elements. “I’m interested in colors — that’s one of the reasons I’m a chemist, I think,” she said.

Bismuth, for example, captures a variety of rainbow shades. It can be used in medicine for treating an upset stomach as well as in cosmetics, she said. Vanadium comes in several different colors and gets its name from the Norse god of beauty, Vanadis.

Element names sometimes created controversy, Palmer said. Naming seaborgium after Nobel Prize-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg created some disagreement, as he was still living at the time.

He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, when Palmer was a student there. When he came into the lab to teach, Palmer recalled, “It was like a real celebrity.”

Elements are still being “discovered” — or rather, created in a laboratory — and in 2016, when the four newest elements were given their official names, Palmer said she was waiting online for the moment they were announced.

Maroney, who is married to Palmer, said: “It’s really part of our existence … We’re both periodic table nerds.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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