Real-Life Periodic Tables Bring Elements to Life

The periodic table of the elements. (Photo: welcomia/Shutterstock)

Conjure up an image of the periodic table and you probably see a series of stacked squares filled with letters and numbers. First developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, the periodic table is an orderly system of classifying the chemical elements that make up literally everything on this planet. But the printed, simple table makes it hard to imagine the heart and soul behind each of the elements.

Some museums and universities are hoping to change that image of the periodic table by creating three-dimensional displays that bring each element to life. One such display, pictured above, made headlines after it was posted on Reddit. The image shows the display at the University of Iowa's chemistry department. It's similar to those found in the chemistry buildings at the University of North Texas, the University of Oregon, California Polytechnic State University, the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M; University.

For some of the elements, like copper, it's easy to find objects that portray the element in its natural state. The case might be filled with pennies (but only those minted before 1981 when real copper was used to make each coin) or copper pipe. But for others, such as hard-to-find francium, creating a display that embodies the element may be more of a challenge.

In this video, Max Whitby, the British scientist who co-founded a company that specializes in helping educational centers build these 3-D periodic tables, dishes on which elements are the most difficult to obtain and how the company deals with displaying elements that are difficult to see.

If pre-designed 3-D periodic tables are cool, community-inspired displays are even cooler. The University of Toledo is taking a DIY approach with its display by asking community members to design display boxes for each element that reach outside the box of science to connect the elements to other fields of study.

Their display for radium, for instance, tells the story of the Radium Girls, a group of women who contracted radiation poisoning after using paint containing radioactive radium in their jobs painting the numbers on watches. The radium case holds an old watch with the original paint, as well as a picture of the factory. You can check out the story behind each display and find out about designing your own elemental display on the group's Living Science website.

For an even cooler DIY approach, check out this periodic table table, created by author and self-described amateur chemist, Theodore Gray: