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Culture and communication

Turning the table

Typically, Sir Martyn has been looking at the periodic table from a fresh perspective. He and School of Chemistry colleague Dr Sam Tang asked: What would it look like turned on its head? And would this help a young audience get to grips with the elements?

He is delighted that his daughter Dr Ellen Poliakoff, an experimental psychologist at the University of Manchester was one of the co-authors on a paper published in Nature Chemistry that asked these questions. 

“Think of the periodic table from the viewpoint of children looking for the first time at Mendeleev’s table hanging on the classroom wall,” he said. “The teacher rarely mentions any of the elements that are typically closest to the children’s eye-level and talks mostly about those high up near the top of the table. 

The current layout also makes it harder to understand one of the key concepts underlying the structure of the periodic table, namely the order of the filling of electron shells. In Mendeleev’s table, these fill from the top to the bottom while most everyday objects like beakers, baths and waste bins fill from the bottom up.”

"Looking at something from a new viewpoint gives rise to new ideas; so this new perspective may create some new thinking."
Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff

Rotating the periodic table by 180° about a horizontal axis addresses this by putting the light elements at the bottom and the heavy ones at the top. 

Ellen and her collaborator Dr Alexis Makin from the University of Liverpool asked participants to rate silhouettes of periodic tables while recording where they looked with eye-tracking software. 

Sir Martyn concludes: “It has been really fun. We’ve had a surprisingly positive response to inverting the periodic table and while we are not claiming our version is in any way ‘more correct’ we feel it has some clear advantages. Looking at something from a new viewpoint gives rise to new ideas; so this new perspective may create some new thinking.”

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