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The Periodic Table of the Elements: exercising the old brain

Friday, September 1, 2006 at 05:51AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal in My personal history

When I traveled earlier this summer with my brother to watch some World Cup soccer games, we engaged in a couple of knowledge-based contests to pass the time on our long flight to Munich. For instance, we each attempted to write down every country in the world, a continent at a time. We are both pretty strong on geography, and it turned out we had little problem dredging up the Lesothos and Andorras of the world, though neither of us demonstrated strength in Oceania. And, embarrassingly, I was outdone in the former Soviet republic, forgetting Azerbaijan. We moved on to other lists, like major little baseball hitters with more than 500 home runs (sorry Eddie Mathews and Eddie Murray, I forgot you as well).

We tackled the elements of the periodic table cooperatively, something which I do think I have contemplated in over twenty years, since high school chemistry. We got a respectable total (somewhere between seventy and eighty elements, not attempting to place them in their correct positions).

I decided on my return that is ridiculous that I do not know something as basic as the periodic table, so for the past week or so I have been learning about the elements. My mind is nothing like it was as a teenager, so it takes me a lot of time and I have to keep shoring up the information. I have been playing with some free web-based learning tools; for instance, one lets you fill the abbreviations into a blank table and notes any incorrect entries. Another gives you the elements as puzzle pieces that you drag to their place on the table one at a time. In addition, I bought a terrific book, called Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, by John Emsley, which has a couple page write-up of each element for a non-technical audience that is quite fascinating. I like learning why the symbol for Tungsten is W, or that cobalt was used for invisible ink, or that the village of Ytterby, Sweden has the names of four elements derived from it (erbium,terbium, ytterbium, yttrium), or how tin and copper were used thousands of years ago. And I have ordered and am really looking forward to reading another, more historical a dn academic treatment with good advance reviews called The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance (by Eric R Scerri).

There is a real pleasure in learning such fundamental things, especially by choice and at my own pace, rather than being driven by job or school. I also have the distinct impression that my brain needs the exercise. So, back to reviewing the actinides.

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