A Treasured Artifact: My First Periodic Table

October 31st, 2012

Sometimes it’s fun to look back and figure out how you got to where you are. When people ask me when it was I knew that I wanted to become a chemist, I always point back to when I was 15 and enrolled in AP Chemistry. The material was incredibly interesting, and my teacher posed questions to us unlike any other science teacher I’ve had. In addition to calculations, our homework problems had essay questions where we had to give thorough explanations in complete sentences. My friends and I would spend hours on the phone discussing things like Le Chatelier’s Principle and solvation effects in gory detail, then I’d hang up and spend the next hour writing paragraph after paragraph of explanation on sheet after sheet of college-ruled notebook paper. I have always enjoyed writing, and there was something especially satisfying about being able to think and explain instead of just crunching numbers. Dr. Liebermann also had us spend a lot of time in the lab doing all sorts of fun experiments, from precipitations of colored salts to the determination of the thickness of the copper coating on a penny. Chemistry has always appealed to me for its ability both to make stuff and solve problems/answer questions. Mathematicians and physicists don’t seem to get to make stuff as often as we do.

Anyway, the other day I was looking through some old photos and had to reconsider when, exactly, it was that I first fell in love with chemistry.

That poster of the periodic table has adorned my bedroom in my parents’ house since I was 9 or 10. Until I left for college, it was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I saw every morning. My dad brought it back from the UK after a business trip; I believe it is a product of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

I must have cared deeply about the poster long before I had ever taken a class in chemistry. When my sister ransacked my room sometime in junior high school, she tore down the poster and ripped the hell out of it. Rather than put up something else, I took the time to mend the table and mount it on a foam board. You can see how the tape of my repair job has yellowed with age, but the table still hangs proudly in my old room as the first artifact of my chemical career. Today, you can buy similar posters for less than $20 on eBay, but I don’t think I’ll ever have the heart to throw my beloved, tattered one away.

12 Responses to “A Treasured Artifact: My First Periodic Table”

  1. Handles Says:

    I remember that exact periodic table from somewhere. I think it was probably on the wall of a lecture theater at my uni.

    In my case, the ‘treasured artifact’ was a 1st edn of Streitweiser and Heathcock which my grandmother gave me. She picked it up from somewhere, but as her interest was geology she didnt have much use for it. I spent a lot of time training my eyes to do the stereostructures when I should have been doing maths homework. This turned out to be somewhat useful when the Magic Eye pictures became popular a few years later.

  2. Nick K Says:

    Way back when (1977) there used to be a physical Periodic Table at the entrance to the new Chemistry building in Imperial College, London. A gram or two of all the elements (apart from the gases and radioactive elements) arrayed in their correct positions on the wall. It was beautiful, but it’s been gone for years.

  3. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    In my case the “treasure” consisted of three 1L bottles of concentrated sulfuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids which I procured from the local chemist and scientific instrument maker. Used to have fun dissolving all kinds of stuff in them and I still have them somewhere in my parents’ home (I think).

  4. Jordan Says:

    It may be originally from the RSC, but it was published as a pull-out in one of the Time-Life science books (and indeed, their logo is on the poster itself). Can’t remember the name of the book right now, but it was part of a series. It was in our school library when I was a kid, and I was similarly inspired.

  5. ChemBob Says:

    When my brother and I were kids (7 and 10 respectively) we were allowed to pick out a placemat for the dinner table for ourselves. I don’t remember what my brother picked, but I picked a periodic table mat and that’s what I looked at for several years every time I sat down to eat dinner. However, it wasn’t until my undergrad when I started teaching my friends gen chem that I realized that I had a lasting love of chemistry.

  6. Steve Chapman Says:

    I’m with Jordan; I’m pretty sure it’s from (or paired with) this book: http://openlibrary.org/works/OL9564020W/Matter_(Science_Library), one of this series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_Science_Library.

    All those lustrous little blobs of metal and glowing noble gases really grabbed me as a boy.

  7. David Says:

    I remember that one very well, since it’s been hanging on my bedroom wall since I was 6 or 7. It is by the RSC, and I think mine was printed in 1985, so it might be same, pending how many heavy elements actually had names back then. I was making salts by picking elements from the left and right hand sides when i was 9. Fifteen+ years later, 4th year in grad school, and I’m still making those salts… (though other, more useful things as well)

  8. Howard Peters Says:

    You must read Dr. Oliver Sacks UNCLE TUNGSTEN a memoir of his love affair with chemistry until he was about 17. Great book for budding chemists.
    Then his parents, both medical doctors in London, said,

    “Enough, you need to be taking more biology to become a physician.”

    And that was that… in the 1940s…

    The Periodic Table with elements in that London Museum had a profound effect on him..

    And we went on to write AWAKENINGS… a film where Robin Williams won an Oscar playing the role of Dr. Sacks…?

  9. wolfie Says:

    there is some hidden
    system in this, and why donÄt we dong get it ?

  10. qvxb Says:

    Great post, Paul.

  11. Bryan Sanctuary Says:

    I really wish my students are like you. I think many of the students have too much on their plates and they want to know “will that be covered on the exam.”

    I remember my first chemistry set and wondering how things worked. I think that early time sets our interests. I also tried to create a periodic table in different shapes and some were interesting, like a spiral.

    Still those early days of awakening are very valuable in motivating ones career direction.

  12. Jeff B Says:

    I still have my copy of this poster, given to me by my school in the 1980s. I read recently that to be a true geek you have to be able to lay your hands on a copy of the periodic table in your home within 15 seconds, so I keep mine on the bookshelf next to my desk.

    I went off chemistry at school when it ceased to be about brightly coloured elements and intoxicating esters and became what I felt to be a dull series of procedures for refining identical-looking white crystalline compounds. But at least I still know the difference between an alkali metal and an alkaline earth metal, thanks to this poster.

Leave a Reply