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The Periodic Kingdom and the essence of life

Professor Atkins

12 November 2019

The system for classifying elements, the Periodic Table, was first set out by Dmitry Mendeleev 150 years ago. As part of International Year of the Periodic Table 2019, SCI hosted Professor Peter Atkins who shared his view of a multidimensional periodic table at a Public Evening Lecture on Wednesday 23rd October.

Muriel Cozier and Bryony Parker

Professor Peter Atkins’ book; The Periodic Kingdom, imagines the Periodic Table as a country, with laws and administration.

Imaging the Periodic Table in an array of dimensions does not come easily, but Professor Atkins used imagery, including Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) to effectively illustrate moving from a two dimensional to three dimensional representations. Invoking Dali provided an interesting parallel as it is believed that as Dali’s artistic style changed, his interest in surrealism diminishing, he developed an interest in nuclear science having reportedly said that the atom had become his favourite food for thought.

Professor Atkins highlighted a number of laws which govern the periodic table, and paid special attention to the Coulomb Potential.  In his book Atkins’ Physical Chemistry, a foundational tome for every chemistry student, the Coulomb Potential energy is defined as energy equal to the work that must be done to bring up a charge from infinity to a distance r from a second charge.

Indeed it is this interaction that is central to the symmetry of the Periodic Table. Describing the Coulomb Potential as ‘beautiful,’ Professor Atkins commented that if one were God and could give any one thing, it would be the Coulomb Potential, for without it, life would not exist.  

During the question and answer session Professor Atkins explained that his love of chemistry stemmed from the fact that it was the intersection of all science informing both biology and physics.
Reminding the audience that the elements are the basis of life and of the advances we have seen in technology, Professor Atkins said that sodium and potassium are the essence of human consciousness while the basis of the technological age is carbon and silicon. Could carbon and silicon lead to similar levels of consciousness in machines?  This philosophical question is one that Professor Atkins said has yet to be answered.

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