The periodic table is 150 years old this week

Feb 28, 2019

“LA république n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes.” With that curt dismissal a court in revolutionary France cut short the life of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, argued by some to be the greatest chemist of all. Lavoisier’s sin was tax farming. He had been a member of the firm that collected the monarchy’s various imposts and then, having taken its cut, passed what remained on to the royal treasury. That he and many of his fellow farmers met their ends beneath a guillotine’s blade is no surprise. What had distinguished Lavoisier from his fellows, though, was what he chose to spend his income on. For much of it went to create the best-equipped chemistry laboratory in Europe.

Nothing comes of nothing. Where the story of the periodic table of the elements really starts is debatable. But Lavoisier’s laboratory is as good a place as any to begin, for it was Lavoisier who published the first putatively comprehensive list of chemical elements—substances incapable of being broken down by chemical reactions into other substances—and it was Lavoisier and his wife Marie-Anne who pioneered the technique of measuring quantitatively what went into and came out of a chemical reaction, as a way of getting to the heart of what such a reaction really is.

Lavoisier’s list of elements, published in 1789, five...

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