Archive for June 27th, 2008


A little embarrassing

If you know me or if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you probably know that I am a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering.  If you don’t know what that is, I’ll help you out.  It’s basically the study of the science and engineering of materials (i.e. metals, plastics, ceramics, etc.).  Obviously, things that are built, must be built out of something, and that something has to be one or more of the known chemical elements.  So, the periodic table is pretty important to materials scientists, just as it is important to chemists.  That said, there are lots of elements in the periodic table that are not in wide use in engineering applications, either because their properties are not attractive for building things or because a cheaper element has sufficiently similar properties, so materials scientists may not think about those elements very much.

When Adrian posted about the trivia site the other day, I was intrigued to find that they have a quiz to test your knowledge of the periodic table.  I figured that since I am a materials scientist, I would have no trouble.  I was wrong.  I was especially embarrassed that on my first try, I couldn’t even fill in the top row of the transition metals (curse you, Scandium!). I also didn’t do so well on the non-metals (other than the halogens, the nobel gases, and those in the first row), since I spend most of my time thinking about metals or metal oxides and I don’t work on biological materials.

If you’re interested, try taking the quiz.  I think you’ll find it harder than you might anticipate.  However, don’t worry if you can’t get the bottom three rows (that is, the bottom row of the main table, along with the lanthanide and actinide series).

Personally, I think that the bottom row of the main part of the table is a curiosity of little practical value.  Most of those elements have a half life of less than 1 second, so they are of no value to engineers.  Furthermore, the elements in the lanthanide and actinide series (in separate rows at the bottom) are also not widely used, so I wouldn’t worry too much about those either.  There are some exceptions: Americium is used in smoke detectors, so you probably have some where you live.  Also, if you have any decent headphones, they probably use magnets containing neodymium. Obviously, uranium and plutonium are pretty well-known as well, though I’m quite sure you don’t have any of those at home – unless you have really old dishes with an orange glaze since uranium oxide used to be used for orange glazes in pottery and dishes, etc.

Anyway, this is all to say that you can be proud of yourself if you complete the periodic table with the exceptions of the last three rows.  If you can fill it all in, you’re a major chemistry dork.



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