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Also: Science and Brexit – and the Royal Institution’s sense of history

The spirit of fiery indignation sparked by BBC’s gender bias pay revelations spread briefly to that temple of order and rectitude, the Royal Institution last week where chemist Dr Eric Scerri was giving a talk on the history and significance of the periodic table.

In the Q&A afterwards, he was asked: “Who is the father of chemistry?” He barely had chance to draw breath before another attendee interjected, “What about the mother of chemistry?” drawing applause and cheers.

The answer, by common consensus, was Antoine Lavoisier for the former and Marie Curie for the latter.

Ghosts Of The Past

Humphry Davy’s original samples

In 1903, Marie Curie sat in the RI’s majestic theatre in Mayfair, listening to a lecture by her husband, Pierre, following their Nobel Prize success. She was one of many eminent scientists whose presence weighs heavy here.

Indeed, it’s difficult not to get misty-eyed sitting in the famous raked auditorium reflecting on the those deathless greats who have told of their ground-breaking adventures hammering away at the walls of human ignorance. Here, for example, JJ Thomson announced the existence of the electron, paving the way for our digital age.

Pertinent to the lecture, Humphry Davy discovered nine new elements in that very institution between 1807 and 1810. Some of his original samples were on display in the lecture theatre in their glass flasks – including the world’s first example of isolated sodium.

Basic Building Blocks Of Science

The Royal Institution

The triumphs of the likes of Davy and his colleague Michael Faraday and the other pioneers of science are the sort of stories that prompt the kind of jingoistic fervour upon which some Brexiteers feast.

Davy’s success, obtained by splitting compounds using electrolysis, required the discovery of the voltaic pile. Yet the pile – the first electric battery – was invented by Alessandro Volta (Italian) who built on the world of Luigi Galvani (also Italian) of twitching dead frogs fame.

As Dr Scerri (of Maltese origin, London educated and now living in America) was keen to stress, breakthroughs are rarely explosive singularities but accretions of knowledge built through partnership and alliance.

One could imagine the ghosts of those scientific giants wailing and quaking at the prospect of the UK leaving the European atomic energy community Euratom and creating other needless impediments to collaboration.

Clearing The Table

Charles Janet’s left-step table

In the spirit of disquieting knowledge, of which science is the greatest exponent, Dr Scerri managed to erode the standing of the periodic table as we know it.

Perhaps the most iconic visual in all of science, the 18-column distended U-shape is, in fact, just one interpretation.

The accepted version has always been aesthetically troubling and the gulf between hydrogen and helium bothers the experts. More pleasing, and gaining favour is Charles Janet’s uniform and sensible left-step periodic form .

We know everything – but briefly.