The periodic table: its story and its significance

The periodic table: its story and its significance 

Eric Scerri 

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2007 | 346pp | ?19.99 (HB) | ISBN 9780195305739 

Reviewed by Denis Rouvray

It is an astonishing truism that, in spite of its central importance to chemistry, the periodic system of the elements has been largely ignored by chemical authors. This highly anomalous state of affairs is brought into especially sharp focus when it is borne in mind that virtually all chemists hold the periodic system in the very highest regard and are only too happy to have pictures of it adorning their laboratories, work places and offices. Nevertheless, books that comprehensively cover the history, evolution, and conceptual basis of the periodic system remain a rarity and the appearance of a new work on this subject must be viewed as a notable event in the world of chemistry. In fact, since the first periodic system was put forward in 1862 by the Frenchman Alexandre Beguyer de Chancourtois, only three such texts have appeared in the English language, these being Venable’s The development of the periodic law(1896), van Spronsen’s The periodic system of the chemical elements  (1969), and Scerri’s The periodic table  (2007). An appearance rate of about one work on the subject every 50 years might suggest that here we have a special treat in store. But is Scerri’s book special? 

The first thing to say about this new work is that it relies very heavily on its immediate predecessor, van Spronsen’s book of 1969. Thus, Scerri accepts the idea that there were precursors as well as discoverers of the periodic system, that there were six independent discoverers of the system, and even reproduces a fair number of illustrations and figures that originally appeared in van Spronsen’s book. Scerri’s book cannot therefore be seen as special. But, although there is little that is really new in Scerri’s book, it is generally well written and represents a valuable new compilation of existing knowledge on the subject. The small amount of new material it contains involves a discussion on whether chemistry can be reduced to quantum mechanics and a brief mention of the correct placement in the system of the troublesome elements hydrogen and helium.  

At the end of his book, Scerri comes somewhat tentatively to the conclusion that the most optimal form of the periodic system as far as chemists are concerned is the so-called left-step system, a form put forward by Janet in 1929 that places helium at the head of the alkaline earth elements.