It’s elementary! Time to celebrate the periodic table

By Jasmine Fellows

9 January 2019

3 minute read


Scientist at work in the lab

It’s a strange grid of squares, filled with arcane codes. And yet, it’s the single greatest tool in chemistry – the periodic table.

As it’s the 150th anniversary of this remarkable system, the United Nations has deemed 2019 as the year to celebrate. Welcome to the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements!

From a game to greatness

We’ve come a long way since the very first periodic table in 1869. Rumour has it that Dmitri Mendeleev based the first version of this famous table on the classic card game, Patience (also known as Solitaire). The aim is to organise cards by suit (horizontally), and by number (vertically).

Dmitri made up his own set of cards based on the 63 known elements of the time. While arranging the cards, Dmitri discovered that the elements had regular, repeating properties. He left some blank spaces in his table where he believed unknown elements could be found. He even predicted the properties of these mystery elements.

Seeking new elements

Double Helix magazine

Cover of the latest Double Helix magazine

Today, the gaps in the original periodic table have been filled. There are about 90 naturally occurring elements. Additional elements have been created in nuclear reactions and particle accelerators up to number 118 – oganesson – which was only formally named in 2016.

Scientists are still on the hunt to find new elements. Scientists think element 119 will start a new row on the periodic table and have properties a bit like sodium, potassium and other elements in the group known as alkali metals. So keep an eye out for element 119 and beyond!

Celebrate with our reading guide!

If you’re intrigued by the story behind the periodic table, check out these reading recommendations from the team at CSIRO Publishing.

Want to introduce kids to the elements? Grab your subscription to Double Helix magazine by 15 January to receive our International Year of the Periodic Table special issue. Kids can work out the periodic puzzle for themselves, learn how the elements came from the stars, and have some foamy fun.

You can also try a few chemical reactions with the kids – from fizzy dinosaur eggs to dancing slime – by picking up a copy of Hands-On Science.

You’ll find out about the elements in our homes, backyards and environment with Chemistry in the Marketplace. It tells the stories of the chemicals around us, weaving together hundreds of clever and quirky explanations. Should I be eating organic food? Is that anti-wrinkle cream a gimmick? Is it worth buying BPA-free plastics?

And if you’re a chemistry aficionado, keep an eye out for the latest published science in the Australian Journal of Chemistry. Bonus content includes a series of articles featuring elements most relevant to us here in Australia, by high-profile guest authors.