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Book Summary: Elemental

Author: Tim James

Substory: Elements Like Musical Notes

The most famous stab at a periodic table, before the one which actually worked, was a doomed attempt by the Englishman John Newlands in 1863. Methods had already been devised to measure the weights of atoms pioneered by Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius (who also introduced the element symbols we use today) so Newlands obtained the data and wrote a list of the elements in order of ascending mass. As he did so, he discovered that the elements almost followed a cyclic pattern the way musical notes do.

In Western music theory, there are only seven principal notes. If you start at any particular tone and play up the scale you’ll discover that the eighth note is identical to the first, just a higher version. Note nine is a higher version of note two and so on. One complete set of notes is called an octave and the notes spiral up and up until the human ear can no longer catch them.

John Newlands applied the same logic to his table of elements, claiming there were seven categories that repeated over and over as we got to higher masses. The first seven elements made the first row, while the eighth element would be the first entry on row two, having similar properties to element 1 directly above it.

He called the seven columns of his table “families” and the eight rows “periods,” meaning something that repeats regularly. Thus, John Newlands introduced the idea of elements being “periodic.”

The idea of periods turned out to have some truth to it, but his table had one minor flaw, which can sometimes prove inconvenient for a hypothesis: it was wrong.

At the time Newlands composed his table (pun very much intended), there were sixty-three elements known, which didn’t fit into an eight by seven grid. So rather than adding an extra column or abandoning the octaves idea, Newlands shoved a bunch of elements into the same grid squares.

The metallic element cobalt, for instance, having the audacity to exist, nudged later elements out of their correct families, which didn’t match the hypothesis. Newlands decided that cobalt and nickel were therefore the same element.

They aren’t. (Although, fun fact, both get their names from German sprites, Kobold and Nickel.)

Newlands knew these elements weren’t the same as each other but this kept his table neat, so best not to worry about it. He then had to do the same thing with awkward vanadium and again with lanthanum. In doing so, Newlands fudged the data to fit his idea. We have a word for that in science: cheating.

It would be like claiming there were three types of animal: cows, goldfish, and pigeons—then when someone shows you a tiger you decide it’s a cow really and put it in the same column.

Newlands also cherry-picked the elemental features. Cobalt is a lustrous metal with magnetic properties but his table aligned it with fluorine, chlorine, and hydrogen, all reactive gases. Newlands was happy to point out that chlorine, hydrogen, and fluorine belonged together but ignored the fact that cobalt didn’t.

As a scientist, your job is to recognize when your hypothesis has failed. If nature says your idea is wrong then you get a new idea, you don’t tell nature what to do.

As a result, Newlands’s table was rejected by the scientific community of the day, although the story does have a happy ending. Every scientist has published a dodgy idea at some point, so scientists are a forgiving bunch who try not to hold grudges. If one idea turns out to be wrong, your others are still given a fair hearing. It’s useful to have that approach because, although Newlands’s octave hypothesis was wrong, his idea of periodic repetition turned out to be on the money. Elements do obey a cyclic pattern but a much more complicated one than he had assumed. He was, for this realization, awarded the Davy Medal for Chemistry by the Royal Society in 1887.