Why we love the Periodic Table

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It’s a masterpiece of design but, says Hugh Aldersey-Williams, the familiar grid of elements has ruined many a chemistry lesson.

All children have posters on their bedroom walls – favourite bands, favourite teams, cars, animals. Not me. I had the periodic table of the elements. In fact, I went one better. My periodic table was a 3D affair with little cubicles for actual specimens of the chemical elements themselves, which I began to collect. I found quite a few around the house. Copper I extracted from electrical wiring, aluminium from kitchen foil, nickel from some foreign coins. Others, such as iodine, I was able (in those days) to buy at the chemist. Mercury I distilled from the gunge inside spent batteries – a dangerous procedure that is now banned, along with the batteries themselves.

The periodic table – which arranges the 118 elements into horizontal rows, or periods, according to increasing atomic number, and in vertical columns based on shared physical characteristics and chemical behaviour – has become something of a graphic icon. These days, you can find it on ties, tables (that’s right – periodic table tables), even shoes and shower curtains. Artists including Damien Hirst have made use of its apparent mystical array in their work....

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