Friday, July 12, 2013

More Notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"

[continuation in part]

I'm reading a book and posting comments about it:

Sam Kean wrote a book a couple years back called "The Disappearing Spoon And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements." 

I am at:

Part I   "Orientation: Column By Column, Row by Row"

1. Geography Is Destiny: He, B, Sb, Tm, O, Ho

This chapter is an excellent introduction but risks alienation from the start. Page 12, line 1:
Probably the biggest frustration for many students was that the people who got the periodic chart, who could really unpack how it worked, could pull so many facts from it with such dweeby nonchalance.
Dweeb: noun: an insignificant student who is ridiculed as being affected or studying excessively.

I, like most people, first encountered the periodic chart in high school. And I was unaware of any beauty behind the periodic chart or chemical theory. I was somewhat attracted to the mechanical aspects of the chemistry lab -- the glassware, the Bunsen burners -- and all the tangible aspects. But instead of focusing on experiments, I built elaborate rubber gas lines snaking under desks in order to "gas out" other students according to some WW I trench warfare reenactment going on in my head. Seriously, I don't remember much from high school chemistry. I may have learned the names of a few elements, but I was pretty much a smart ass in my first two years of high school and I paid a price for that. It probably didn't help that I had a terrible teacher who didn't know much chemistry himself (he was an earth science teacher). My high school had a regular chemistry teacher with a chemistry background (Mr. Z), but space was limited in his class and I didn't make the cut. The irony. But I digress. Getting back to the book: yes I too associated chemistry with dweebs. I fought the dweebs and the dweebs won. I became a dweeb or as we affectionately called ourselves in grad school "chem nerds."

Page 12, middle:
Before introducing the periodic table, every teacher should strip away all the clutter and have students just stare at the thing, blank.
Hey!  I made a similar point back here, except I proposed actually testing such knowledge.

The author is keen on stressing the rectilinear grid structure -- the Cartesian qualities. And for good reason: the chart is the form we all know -- but still, it is just a convention. There is nothing intrinsic about that flat tabular presentation.  I "co-invented" an alternative version here.

There is a rich history of how the grid was assembled. First came columns in the early 19th century: Döbereiner's triads --though the column metaphor presumes a vertical relation which didn't yet exist. Then came Newlands with his rows and notions of repeating layers. And then came Mendeleev who envisioned the whole thing well enough to predict where holes were for missing elements.

Page 13, last paragraph:
For each element, its geography is destiny. In fact, now that you have a sense of what the table looks like in outline, I can switch to a more useful metaphor: the periodic table as a map. And to sketch in a bit more detail, I'm going to plot this map from east to west, lingering over both well-known and out-of-the-way elements.
This reminded me of lecture I heard at the UW-Madison ca. 1982 given by a guest lecturer (I wasn't a grad student but rather a precocious undergrad). He put up a periodic table in which he likened it to a US map and showed how certain university research groups were working on the chemistry of elements in a "geographic" way: "Oh look, there's Jack Halpern in Chicago working on rhodium which sits in the "midwest"; and just north of him on the chart is Chuck Casey at Madison, working on iron; out west on the leftern edge is the Bercaw group exploring scandium; out east there's so and so." The modern periodic table is iconic.

Page 17, middle paragraph:
The repose of the noble gases is rare, however. One column to the west sits the most energetic and reactive gases on the periodic table, the halogens. And if you think of the table wrapping around like a Mercator map, so east meets west and column eighteen meets column one, even more violent elements appear on the western edge, the alkali metal. The pacifist noble gases are a demilitarized zone surrounded by unstable neighbors.
I love that. I made the identical point about the Mercator aspect back here (and this was before Kean published, WTF?). But none of this is original, so far...

...Doodle du jour:

1 comment:

  1. I like the doodle. It's pretty much how I envisioned the periodic chart if you wrapped it around into a tube like described in the book.


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