August 4, 2020

Spaniards in the periodic table | Science

The other day a friend told me that to dedicate an International Year to the the periodic table It is like celebrating the list of the Gothic kings or the tributaries of the Ebro. And many people remember the periodic table as a nightmare that they had to learn by heart without understanding why or why to make that effort. But there are many reasons to celebrate and fill activities a year that coincides with the 150th anniversary of the first modern version of the periodic table that we owe to the great Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev.

The periodic table is the fruit of the work of hundreds of people who for centuries They have tried to answer the question of what all things are made of. The Greeks proposed four elements that for more than two thousand years reduced the response to water, air, earth and fire. None of them is part of the current list that with 118 elements cover everything that exists on earth and much more, and after discovering all the elements that surround us we have been able to create many others that tell us new stories about how it is made the universe. Over the years the periodic table has become the most recognizable and universal icon of science. It summarizes the accumulated effort to bring order to chaos in 7 rows and 18 columns. It is difficult to say more with less and to do it in such a precise, visual and useful way. The periodic table is the travel guide of any scientist. With it it is easier to reach the desired destination following the indications that marks the periodicity with which its elements are ordered.

Spanish in the periodic table

Perhaps it is not a well-known fact, but Spain has contributed very significantly to the construction of this building of universal knowledge with the discovery of three elements Chemicals: vanadium, tungsten and platinum. But as it happens so many times in our country, its discoverers are hardly known by their compatriots and their names and histories, which are full of adventure and heroism, are not counted in class when the periodic table is explained. Precisely to make known these four great Spanish discoverers, Correos will issue a stamp that highlights the three chemical elements with which they contributed to the periodic table and that will be presented on January 9 at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid. The four Spaniards to whom we owe the elements that make us more resistant to steel, which allow our cell phones to work and that are used to treat some types of cancer are: Andrés Manuel del Río, a Madrid resident who lived and died in Mexico where he discovered in 1801, not without many problems, the vanadium, which he called erythronium, and which the Swedish Nils Gabriel Sefström renamed in 1830 as vanadium in honor of the goddess of Scandinavian mythology Vanadis. The Logroño brothers Juan José and Fausto Delhuyar managed to isolate the tungsten from the Royal Seminary of Vergara in 1783, to see how the Swedish Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele decided to call it tungsten, a name that we should avoid to honor its true discoverers. And finally, the Sevillian sailor and mathematician, Antonio de Ulloa, who discovered platinum in 1748, a metal that looks like silver and was not given too much value, so it received a diminutive and somewhat derogatory name that does not He does it justice.

Celebrations in Spain

Our country will also have a prominent role in the activities scheduled at international level during this year that we are now beginning. The next 11 and 12 February will be held at the University of Murcia an international symposium on the role of women in science that will be attended by numerous personalities from around the world to analyze and find solutions to the gender gap coinciding with the International Day of the Woman and the Girl in Science.

Posters with which the University of La Rioja has welcomed 2019 and the International Year of the Periodic Table at the bus stops in the city.
Posters with which the University of La Rioja has welcomed 2019 and the International Year of the Periodic Table at the bus stops in the city.

Throughout the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, hundreds of activities have been programmed around the world to raise awareness of the role of chemistry in the construction of a more sustainable development. The 118 elements that make up the current periodic table are essential to build the solutions that will allow us to move towards the sustainable development goals that we have set for 2030. Lithium, for example, has a fundamental role in the storage of electricity, which is key to finally use only energy from renewable sources. Nitrogen, which for a little more than a century we can fix as ammonia, is the basis of fertilizers, thanks to which food is produced for half of the human population. Or the chlorine that is probably responsible for the greatest contribution of chemistry to human health, that is, the purification of water. Chemistry plays a very important role in the development of a more sustainable future. Those young people who decide to dedicate themselves to it have an exceptional opportunity so that, on the shoulders of the giants who built the periodic table, they discover how to use the elements to build a better, healthier and more respectful world with the environment.

All that is very good, but nothing I said to him seemed to convince my friend that he insisted to me. Why learn the periodic table if it is on the internet? There is no point in learning it. We have to remember less and understand more. But something tells me that we only know what we remember and that to ignore something is to ignore it. Computers are faster responding to what we do not know, a historical data, how a word is written, or the symbol of a chemical element. With this International Year it is not intended that there are more people who learn the periodic table but that they appreciate and know what it means. Behind each element there is a story full of effort to understand what things are made of and to order what we know about them in a useful and simple way. The periodic table is a huge work that fits in a pastern. To condense so much in so little has been necessary the work of many people that we recognize with this International Year that is dedicated to them. The elements that we discovered and that we have today are key to finding the solutions that allow us to build a better and possible world.

Javier García Martínez is a professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Alicante


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