As I currently live and work in Cambridge, being the place that is globally recognised by its leadership position and excellence in conducting high quality research, I was pleased to find out that there are plenty of events happening throughout the year to pay homage to the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table. "Celebrating the Periodic Table" exhibition at St Catharine's College is one of these events. Last week I visited this exhibition and interviewed its curator, Dr Peter Wothers.
Through its fine collection of material relating to the early development of the periodic table, the exhibition tells an incredible story of how scientists tried to classify elements in the past. This story is truly about scientists making a lifelong commitment to science, challenging the current state of knowledge, making sense of the unknown, understanding caveats and uncertainties, and facing failures of their work being scrutinised and their efforts not being recognised.
The exhibition starts from the first list of elements which emerged around the time of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and the first list of atomic masses drawn up by English chemist, John Dalton (see: Dalton's atomic theory). Then, items on display explore six different chemists from around the world who came up with their own versions of the periodic table. These remarkable items include: the incredibly rare Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois's vis tellurique (telluric screw) and John Alexander Newlands and William Odling's versions of the periodic table.
A special space is then designated for the first edition of Dmitri Mendeleev's Principles of Chemistry where the periodic table of chemical elements was published for the very first time in 1869.
The exhibition ends with unique pieces of art specially created to mark this important anniversary: a spiral sculpture based on Schaltenbrand's 1920 helical version of the periodic table and a macramé version containing more than 180,000 knots.