Why the periodic table needs a redesign
RUN your fingers over the white keys of a piano. The notes get higher and higher as your hand moves to the right. On the eighth key, something beautiful happens: a note hangs in the air that embodies something of the first, only with a different pitch.
We began to twig that something similar was going on with the chemical elements more than 150 years ago. Scientists even called it the law of octaves. And it is this repetition in the properties of the elements that the periodic table captures so beautifully. Similar elements end up stacked in columns or groups. One group comprises noble gases like argon and neon that barely react with anything, another contains reactive metals, some of which, like francium, explode on contact with water.
But there are doubts over whether the periodic table is in the best possible configuration. Just as notes can be arranged in various ways to produce music, so the essence of the relationships between the elements could be depicted differently. There is no easy way to judge which is better, or more “true”. So arguments over perceived flaws in the current arrangement rumble on, with some chemists arguing that certain elements should be relocated – and others working on more radical ways to recompose the table.
At first, the elements were organised by atomic weight. Now we order them by the number of protons in their nucleus. We also know that their properties are largely determined by the arrangement of the negatively charged electrons that orbit in successive shells around the nucleus.
The lightest elements have just one shell, which can hold two of these particles. Heavier elements have more shells that can hold larger numbers of electrons. What really matters for each element’s behaviour, however, is how many electrons it has in its outer shell.
That number tends to fit nicely with the way the table is arranged, namely to place elements with similar properties in the same group. For instance, group 1 elements have one electron in their outer shell and those in group 2 have two. But it doesn’t always fit together quite as neatly as all that.
Read the rest of this piece over at newscientist.com here.