oliver sacks on Mendeleev’s Garden

Periodic-tableOliver Sacks at The American Scholar:

The periodic table was incredibly beautiful, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I could never adequately analyze what I meant here by beauty—simplicity? coherence? rhythm? inevitability? Or perhaps it was the symmetry, the comprehensiveness of every element firmly locked into its place, with no gaps, no exceptions, everything implying everything else.

I was disturbed when one enormously erudite chemist, J. W. Mellor, whose vast treatise on inorganic chemistry I had started dipping into, spoke of the periodic table as “superficial” and “illusory,” no truer, no more fundamental than any other ad hoc classification. This threw me into a brief panic, made it imperative for me to see if the idea of periodicity was supported in any ways beyond chemical character and valency.

Exploring this took me away from my lab, took me to a new book that immediately became my bible, the CRC Handbook of Physics and Chemistry, a thick, almost cubical book of nearly three thousand pages, containing tables of every imaginable physical and chemical property, many of which, obsessively, I learned by heart.

I learned the densities, melting points, boiling points, refractive indices, solubilities, and crystalline forms of all the elements and hundreds of their compounds. I became consumed with graphing these, plotting atomic weights against every physical property I could think of.

more here.