Saturday, July 26, 2008

Nature's music -- Part 2

I suggested yesterday a likeness between the Periodic Table of the Element and music. It might be more accurate to say that the Periodic Table is the score of the symphony which is the world.

The person who first transcribed the music was the Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev, in 1869. At that time, 63 elements were known. Mendeleev was something of a dreamer and a philosopher. He was convinced that the elements and their properties were not contrived at random. Behind the apparent chaos of chemistry he sought a pattern. "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing," he said, "and the honor of kings to search it out."

Mendeleev wrote the names, atomic weights, and chemical properties of the elements on 63 cards, and these he arranged into recurring sequences, by atomic weights, like the octaves of the musical scale. He was not the first to look for a pattern within the properties of the elements -- the idea was in the air -- but he was the first to see the pattern in its entirety.

Within Mendeleev's arrangement of cards there were three blank spaces, where elements were needed to complete the pattern and none were known. Boldly, Mendeleev predicted the existence of the missing elements, and even suggested their properties. For example, he predicted an element with an atomic weight close to 70, similar to aluminum, easily fusible, able to form alums, and with a volatile chloride. Within a decade just such an element -- named gallium -- was discovered. So were two other predicted elements -- germanium, and scandium -- with precisely the properties asserted by Mendeleev. His beautiful arrangement of cards was vindicated.

In 1955, a group of physicists at the University of California in Berkeley announced the discovery of a new element with atomic number 101. Seventeen atoms of the element were artificially created by bombardment of lighter nuclei with the Berkeley cyclotron. The discovery came at the height of the Soviet-American Cold War. Nevertheless, the Berkeley scientists decided to name the new element for a Russian. Element 101 in the Periodic Table of the Elements became Mendelevium, and, like all other elements discovered since Mendeleev's day, fell precisely into place in the score of nature, confirming once again the musicality of matter.