Periodically, Review Your Beliefs

I know, it seems like the world is coming to an end, but take heart, four new elements have been added to the periodic table in December. I know, I know. My own first reaction was, “Oh those poor kids have to learn four more elements.” But then I recalled that they have one less planet to remember, (Pluto, we love you!) so suck it up buttercups.

My next reaction was, “I don’t believe in the periodic table.” And I said as much to my coworker, who rolled his eyes and gave me a look like, what the hell is wrong with you. I went on to explain that in college, as a closeted word person trapped in a science major, I was constantly buffeted and tormented by the required memorization of all those, ugh, facts. Tests were pure misery as I faced the list of confusing multiple choice answers: A; A&C; A,D&F, & C if it’s a Tuesday; and the only answer I was sure of was A. How I longed to instead write an essay about the random bits of information I had actually absorbed.

I made my stand with the periodic table because I was expected to memorize more than 100 of those bugger elements and their bothersome electrons. I was able to remember that hydrogen has one electron, and then it was downhill from there. As my English major brain was want to do, I started thinking about how ridiculous the whole table was, and that it started with the randomly assigned one electron. So I declared the periodic table a random man-made thing, and in protest I refused to study it.

Like any newly evangelized convert, I became a complete boor and a bore in social settings, going on about how the periodic table was completely arbitrary and therefore invalid. We could decide hydrogen has 10 electrons and then all the other elements’ electrons shift. I was adamant, I was confident, and I was excessively pleased with my own sophomoric cleverness.

I was also completely wrong, but who wants to hear that?

If I had spent even 10 minutes studying the damn chart, I would have realized it was a legitimate tool of science. Instead, I created a whole construct to legitimize my dislike of memorizing facts and hide the fact that the periodic table pushed my word brain out of its comfort zone, poked at my low science self-esteem, and made me face my less than stellar memory.

How dumbass is that?

Some 30 years later, I’m here to say, I was wrong. Yes, the periodic table still makes my brain hurt. It actually hurts even more now, because when I looked it up on website, you know as one does for serious science inquiry, I still didn’t really understand it, and now there are even more things to memorize, like different orbits and valence shells. Although I did like this sentence: “The noble gases and helium are all ‘happy,’ because their valence shell is full.” I like happy, noble gases. Maybe I can be one some day.

And, yes, the periodic table is man-made; it’s remarkably similar to other useful man-made things like math, grammar, and democracy.

So, I welcome you nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og). I may not understand you, I will never memorize you, but I do believe in your right to join the table.



  1. I do feel you, but life is better with an element called Og. Did I tell you about my Lit Prof, lecturing in a chemistry lecture hall, who committed himself to getting the P Chart in? He compared a character in Tom Jones to a noble gas, explained why, and got a round of applause. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now. Love this!

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