The periodic table is worth making a fuss about.[…] But the origins of this year’s potential big bang of chemical understanding lie in a proclamation from a bureaucracy that is hardly known for its skills at kindling inspiration and jaw-dropping awe.
Roger Highfield, Turning the tables, Chemistryworld (12th December 2018)
The new year truly begins only on the 2nd January. Only on this day can we really flip the calendar, when the overexposure to classical music and sparkling wine, the occasional hangover and the unrealistic New Year resolutions, are all but forgotten, and life slowly resumes its usual pace.
Yesterday, the downtown gym opened at 10 and I was not at all surprised to see the reception so full; at the desk, many fitness hopefuls were queuing up to subscribe for their pass, the first step on the perilous path back to shape. As I shuffled past them, on my way to the dressing room, I yawned hugely, suddenly realising how drowsy I still felt. I shrugged my tiredness off as a simple consequence of the cold snap holding Montréal in its icy grip. This was such a feeble attempt at whitewashing my conscience … shouldn’t you have gone to bed earlier last night? As soon as I entered the gym, my no-nonsense, unpretentious training session started looming large as the first veritable challenge of 2019: I mustered all my strength as I was desperately trying to shake off my lethargy.
Heavy legs. Another yawn. The clock turns. Off we go.
The periodic training
It was as I was lapping at a leisurely pace on the running track that I started thinking about writing a post about the New Year. Not just any post, mind you, but a post about what makes 2019 so unique : its being IUPAC’s International Year of the Periodic Table, celebrating the publication of Mendeleev’s brainchild in 1869. Deep into my training, when running had taken its toll on my knees and started to make me feel somewhat light-headed, I lost myself in a reverie, one in which that each periodic passage over the start line meant returning to the end of a period, only to begin scrolling through it again, group after group, step after step. Everything around me became a blur of shapes : the flat screen broadcasting news live from the US, the shortcut to the loo, the pace clock and its four slowly revolving hands, the entrance to the squash court, the line, and back to square one : all elements that returned, lap after lap, as my legs were growing sorer, as if I were really walking down the table, stepping into the cases of heavier elements along the way.
Time was up, thanks goodness. I drifted away to a quiet corner and I set about stretching. Then, limping, I headed for the exit with a thin smile on my face: I had made it, and so I could finally step into the New Year for real.
Table of contest
So do we now, here on the blog, but don’t be disappointed at me if I won’t be talking about the thing itself, the Periodic Table. You can flip back to my previous posts (one, two and three), skip to this article on The Conversation (including a curious Underground Map of the Elements), or click on the link to this engaging, informative long read covering Mendeleev’s biography on the website of Chemistryworld (the monthly magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry) and simply forgive me for being lazy this time. After all, I can be excused : I am still recovering from yesterday’s reckless morning run, and the temperature outdoors hovers around −15°C at the time of writing. Joking aside, what made me sit down and think twice before impulse-posting a celebration of all things periodic was this opinion piece published in Chemistryworld. In this article, Roger Highfield, director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group (UK), wonders if the International Year of the Periodic Table will turn out to be yet another formality, or if it will instead have a real impact on chemistry’s disappointing invisibility in public discourse :
Will this anniversary turn out to be an amazing opportunity for outreach and public engagement? […] Or will the global festivities around the International Year of the Periodic Table be yet another deadly example of all those initiatives that preach to the converted? […] The first step to raise the profile of chemists is to think less about how to broadcast the periodic table and more about how to persuade the target audience to listen.
Aha, good point! A quick look at the official website of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry let me realise that Highfield was right. As I nosed about for news on this year’s programme, something caught my attention. At first sight, The Periodic Table of Younger Chemists may seem an original, lighthearted attempt at killing two birds with one stone : celebrating the rising stars of the discipline (defined “outstanding chemists”) while honouring chemistry’s iconic emblem and marking the first 100 years of IUPAC. Don’t get me wrong (and IUPAC please do not take it personally): getting to know the people underneath the lab coat is always a laudable effort. However, outstanding chemists will eventually be recognised by theirs peers regardless of the creation of yet another pointless award fuelling the toxic competitive attitude which has turned academia into a cut-throat world.
(For your information: the Periodic Table of Younger Chemists is still incomplete, and so far I happen to know just one of those, all more or less of my age, who have already received the ultimate accolade).
What else can one bring to the table?
But I have got no time to waste in a spell of ranting. Let’s get back to the point : how to lay chemistry on the table and make it tasty, not only palatable, for all those who are coming for dinner, and not just for food geeks. I will put in my two pennies’ worth focussing on this year’s three keywords, one at a time: Periodic, Table, and Elements, to share some humble ideas, some New Year resolutions of sorts.
The central word to start with, because chemistry and cooking is a marriage made in heaven, and you do not need to mess with mind-boggling molecular gastronomy to blend molecules and food. If you are a newcomer to the field and feel motivated, I suggest starting from McGee’s superb reference book On Food and Cooking (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004). Geeky at times, you might argue, but thoroughly enjoyable even if you just want to savour a flavour of food and chemistry. Best eaten as little nibbles.
Food books pitched at a more accessible level are peppered with a lot of chemistry between the lines, too. Take Micheal Pollan’s Cooked (Penguin, 2013), for instance, subtitled “A natural history of transformation”, a definition that could hold true for chemistry as well. In this engrossing read, Pollan takes us on an exploration moving in a space defined by four cardinal points : Fire, Water, Air, Earth, four icons of different aspects of cooking which obviously hint at Empedocles’s four elements. Talking food and chemistry comes in with an added bonus : one can place broader issues on the dining table and serve a full-course meal. Sustainability in food production, global warming, pollution.
Following up on my last point, I move on to the Elements. To keep this resolution, I will simply pick a few elements having a considerable significance in our times, and I will commit myself to placing a greater emphasis on them in the next twelve months.
Here are my suggestions, beyond the ever-present carbon :
- Nitrogen, which ties in well with the previous paragraph, as there is a growing awareness of the urgent need to curb nitrogen imbalances caused by excessive use of fertilisers and, to a lesser extent, fossil fuel combustion. Spare a moment, and have a go at calculating your nitrogen footprint here. Too large? A couple of tips to cut down on it : do not waste food, eat less meat, don’t buy junk you don’t need (which probably travelled the world by ship in a container), become an infrequent flyer.
- The « rare earth metals», that is, a collective term regrouping a merry band of seventeen elements (as ruled by IUPAC) : scandium, yttrium, plus all the lanthanoids, those sort of hanging around at the bottom of the most widespread, shorter form of the Periodic Table: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium. Need a primer? Here is a fantastic podcast from BBC Radio (also featuring Andrea Sella, whose talent for chemistry outreach is truly prodigious) and an article from The Conversation. Despite the small amount produced, they are crucial in some cutting-edge technologies, particularly those involving magnets and coloured screens. China is the world’s largest rare earths producer, controlling the entire supply chain from cradle through value-added products to grave, which gives Beijing a potentially enormous bargaining leverage in global geopolitics.
- The endangered elements, superbly depicted by Andy Brunning (Compound Interest website) in a customised Periodic Table. Too many? Scroll down to indium next time you fiddle with your mobile phone (here is another BBC programme to help you to get to grips with this critical element).
Finally, the more theoretical term, that Periodic which, honestly, did not inspire me any clear New Year resolution at first – maybe except for taking up regular exercise! After racking my brains, I will recommend one last book, Periodic Tales, about “The Curious Lives of the Elements” by Hugh Aldersey-Willliam (Penguin 2012), which I also talk about in a previous post.
More importantly, “Periodic” suggests that we should all draw inspiration from Mendeleev’s yearning to pinpoint the elusive patterns informing the properties of chemical elements. After all, being a chemist is first and foremost an attitude, a mindset, a way of life that everyone, everwhere, can adopt in their daily life. Periodic also conveys an idea of repeated pattern, which conjures up those enthralling periodic structures such as the DNA double helix (for the curious readers with some chemistry background, here’s a treat for you : Roald Hoffmann’s seminal paper Molecular Beauty). From aesthetics to philosophy there is just a short step. Nothing encourages a deep reflection upon the fleetingness of life and its periodic cycles more than snow falling peacefully on a cold winter night, which also reminds me of the opening of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow:
The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.
And this is the right moment to consider snow crystals and their exquisitely beautiful symmetry.
Let the Periodic celebrations begin and uncork your fizz– if you’ve still got any left, three days into the New Year.