The History of the Periodic Table

            Open scene: Two clearly bored children, staring out the window of their middle upper class suburban home at the heavy rain pattering across the panes of glass, almost mocking them, like a cruel prison guard rattling the bars of a prisoner’s cage in the most frustrating manner. An old man quickly rolls into the scene, and upon spying the two children, lets loose a painfully cheerful grin that would repulse even the happiest of clowns into a frown of distaste and disgust. The children can’t help but see him as he walks over to where they sit, and before they can make the dash up to their respective rooms, he has them in a chokehold, cleverly disguised as a caring hug, his beefy arms wrapped around both of their necks. He obnoxiously bellows, “CHILDREN! How can you simply sit here and do nothing on such a wonderful day?!” One of the children thinks of making a sarcastic comment on the rain outside, but thinks better of it. The other child doesn’t. “True. But in case you hadn’t noticed we were just counting how many drops of water we saw, so we could maybe write them down for later-”The old man quickly bellows out a laugh and cuts her off, bringing up a completely different subject, eliciting looks of silent groans from the children. “HA! I remember learning about another man who loved to count such little, and seemingly unimportant things! He even made a chart for them! The periodic table! Yes! Revolutionized the scientific world! Let me explain…” A terrified look comes into each of the children’s eyes, but they, enveloped into the man’s disgustingly beefy arms, are unable to make their escape. He begins the story that they know with any luck will end when their parents finally return.
            Before the periodic table, research on the elements looked a lot like the cavemen banging on rocks to make fire. The concept was there, but everyone was too professional and self-important too just start rubbing some sticks together. Because of this, real advancement in the world of elements only occurred when somebody who everybody knew was very smart and wise and probably someone who knows what they’re talking about actually started getting into the subject. The Greeks, who had a whole bunch of smart people (Socrates, Plato, etc.) started the whole thing, bringing up the idea that all matter was composed of elements. Sadly, the Greeks were the kind of people who had a fresh water source, but only bathed once a year, and knew it was nasty to just go running around town naked, but decided a thin, revealing towel hung haphazardly around most of the body was the best solution. So when they thought up elements, they believed there were only four, earth, wind, water, and fire. Now we today know this is garbage, but back then, saying that was like saying ‘the sky is blue’. Still, for 400 B.C., pretty impressive. For 2000 years after that though, people just seemed to be caught in this limbo between progressive and stone-age when it came to the elements. They used alchemy, which, while it did use science, and the careful application of elements, was explained by literally the worst word in the world of science, the f-word for all men and women who study the way the world works, the end-all-be-all of rational thought: magic. So when alchemists discovered stuff, using this with this makes this, instead of trying to figure out why, they just brought it up to the king to get their pat on the back, and went back to figuring out how to turn lead into gold or some other nonsense, So in 400 years, humans had finally figured out elements, and come up with four that weren’t even real elements. Another 2000 years, and we had discovered like three, and figured out how to make acids. Yipee. Now, not all of the alchemists were COMPLETE quacks, some were actual scientists. They cared about what they were doing, and really wanted to learn, they just had no idea what any of this meant. Thankfully, this smart guy named Robert Boyle showed up around the 1600’s, and changed everything. You see, while all those alchemists and scientists were like the frustrated five year old who can’t figure out how to turn on the TV with the remote, Boyle was like the kind adult who gently took the remote out of their hands, turned it the other way around, so the little red light was facing the screen, and gave it back to them, chuckling in a friendly manner. Plus he was Irish. Basically, he told all those guys trying to work out the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, how about we just admit the only time we make any progress in all this is when we experiment, y’know, not just say that since ice freezes water, it must also freeze fire, without actually double checking to see if what we’re saying is for real. And unlike the other poser scientists of his age, Boyle never tried to limit the number of elements out there in the universe, the fact of the matter was, he didn’t even use the traditional definition for an element, he created a completely different (and way more spot on) definition based off of, that’s right, experiments. He was one of the world’s nerdiest rebels, in an age-old war against the empire of wannabe-know-it-all-hipster scientists a.k.a. alchemists. His first assault? Telling people to stop calling air an element, because it could be broken down into many pure substances, and calling it an element is like saying a chocolate chip cookie is a proper ingredient in cooking. And, lo and behold, after people started taking his advice, a whole schmorgusboerg (if that’s how you spell it) of elements started showing up, and the whole Greek ‘four elements’ idea went back to the stone age where it belonged (Not putting down the Greeks of course, they were brilliant, but maybe they should’ve just stuck to math and philosophy). Still, it WAS the early days of chemistry, so for some reason, Boyle went against his own ideas, and still supported the garbage theory that eventually people would figure out how to turn one metal into a different one, but hey, at least he didn’t think that it would be because of magic. Which, when you think about it, is either a good thing or a bad thing… Anyway, fast forward about 200 years to 1869, Boyle’s finally got science on track, Dalton’s figured out about atoms, Greek science has been thrashed like the Bad News Bears pre-Casey, and the hero of this little tale’s about to step in and save the day, so to speak. So far, people have been going at it trying to figure out a way to order the elements, guys like Antoine Lavoisier, who published a list of 33 chemical elements, Johan Wolfgang Dobereiner, who discovered the law of Triads, Julius Lothar Meyer, who tried arranging a table of 49 elements arranged by valence, and so on and so forth. Progress, while it did beat the old ‘breakthrough-every-five-hundred-years-or-so’ method, was still pretty slow on account of the fact that the rich kid hipster nerd scientists kept browbeating and outright SCOFFING at these guys for ordering the elements like the musical octaves scale, and other crazy, groundbreaking, tomorrow-is-today stuff of that nature (only to realize, “Wait a sec, they’re on to something here!” after actually taking a look at what was going on). Finally, through thousands of years of “Almost… aaaalmost…!” The time had finally come. For the Russian.
Photo courtesy of Lord Buham, in all his excellency

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (sweet name), a Russian born scientist showed up on the scene, and told everybody, hey, stop watching the black and white film, because I just invented this new thing called Fios HiDef. Figuratively speaking. You see, while everybody else had been working on making chemical tables only using the elements they had found at the time, Mendeleev, using columns and rows to order the elements according to their atomic number/weight, was able to PREDICT THE FUTURE, and leave spaces open for future elements that had yet to be discovered. And this was all in a time when, if he done this in a different place, he would have been burned alive for witchcraft by crazy peasants. Instead, he beat out some other almost as brilliant guy named Julius Lothar Meyer, who used a similar rows and columns method to order the elements, but didn’t share the same space/time dimension tearing powers to see days yet to come that really seemed to intrigue the younger crowd into reading Mendeleev. His table basically became the nitrous to human element discovery, and thanks to him, we are basically three elements away from figuring out how to rule the universe. Not really. But we make our forefathers from 100 years ago look like cavemen, so… win.
            The old man looks off into the distance, reminiscing what was clearly one of the worst renditions of human history in existence. The children, who have been suffering the same hellish trials as those young miscreants from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (It’s a wonder they’ve managed to sit there listening to Bob Saget for a whole six seasons), finally managed to squeeze themselves out of the mans beefy grips using a rudimentary pulley/level system straight outta 127 hours made of shoelaces and… whatever that plastic thing at the end of shoelaces are called. All in all, everybody came out learning something in the end. Right?


1 comment:

  1. Okay, just so nobody gets confused, that awesome original Mendeleev pic that was posted in the essay that you won't find ANYWHERE ELSE (just try searching Google bitch, make my day), was made by one of our resident artists who goes by the name of BUHAMMER. So please direct all praise and honor to him.