Great Explanations

By Mark Lorch

20 top scientists on the best things they ever learnt

Science | Environment
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You don't need a PhD in horology to know that there are piles of great popular science books out there and not enough time to read them all. So we’ve collected a bunch of the best established and emerging science writers - people working at the cutting edge of their own particular disciplines - and asked them to distil their passions into just one chapter each.

The result is Great Explanations, an anthology of the most pressing, fascinating and sometimes just plain overlooked topics from the far reaches of science, engineering and maths topped with a smattering of the philosophy and history of science. These are the subjects that working scientists are most passionate about, or interested in, or surprised by, in their own disciplines - the things they think curious general readers really ought to know.

We've also teamed up with Sense about Science, which promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence. Some of the contributing authors are part of their Voice of Young Science network and 15 per cent of the book's profits will be donated to the charity. The book will be compiled and edited by Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Head of Department for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the University of Hull.

Contributors include:

Sir David John Spiegelhalter OBE FRS, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, on the amazing predicting powers of Bayes Theorem.

Dr Kit Chapman, award-winning science journalist and science historian, on how to win a Nobel prize.

Kelly Stanford, Science communicator, researcher and artist, on the History of SciArt.

Prof Adam Hart, entomologist and the University of Gloucestershire's Professor of Science Communication, on kin selection: the role that relatives play in an individual's fitness.

Plus Dr Suze Kundu, Dr Kat Arney, Dr Helen Czerski, Prof Andy Miah, Dr Dean Burnett, Prof Matthew Cobb, Dr Kat Day and more fabulous scientists and writers to be revealed over the next few weeks; stay tuned to our updates to be among the first to find out more.

  • High quality, B-format paperback edition
  • With black and white, integrated illustrations
  • Approximately 60,000 words and 256 pages
  • Have YOUR own most burning science question answered in the book by pledging for the FAQ level/li>
  • More great contributors to be confirmed - watch this space!

*Book designs, cover and other images are for illustrative purposes and may differ from final design.

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  • Mark Lorch avatar

    Mark Lorch

    Mark Lorch is a biochemist, Professor of Science Communication and Head of Department for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the University of Hull. Along with his academic duties he is a prolific science writer. He has bylines in publications such as Newsweek, the Guardian, Scientific American, the BBC, the New Humanist and more besides. Mark has also edited popular science anthologies including The Secret Science of Superheroes, which was nominated for book of the year by the Institute of Physics, and he recently published Biochemistry – a Very Short Introduction.

    Over the years he has developed many off-the-wall ways to communicate science including building models of proteins in Minecraft, creating a mashup of two iconic infographics to produce an "underground map of the elements" (also available on a mug as a reward for backing this book) and developing wacky science shows such as The Periodic Dinner Table and The Science of Slime.

    In any remaining spare time Mark enjoys cleaning steam engines on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

    You can keep up to date will all his antics on twitter at @mark_lorch

  • The periodic table is 150 – but it could have looked very different

    Theodor Benfey’s spira table (1964). DePiep/Wikipedia
    Mark Lorch, University of Hull

    The periodic table stares down from the walls of just about every chemistry lab. The credit for its creation generally goes to Dimitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who in 1869 wrote out the known elements (of which there were 63 at the time) on cards and then arranged them in columns and rows according to their chemical and physical properties. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this pivotal moment in science, the UN has proclaimed 2019 to be the International year of the Periodic Table.

    John Dalton’s element list. Wikimedia Commons

    But the periodic table didn’t actually start with Mendeleev. Many had tinkered with arranging the elements. Decades before, chemist John Dalton tried to create a table as well as some rather interesting symbols for the elements (they didn’t catch on). And just a few years before Mendeleev sat down with his deck of homemade cards, John Newlands also created a table sorting the elements by their properties.

    Mendeleev’s genius was in what he left out of his table. He recognised that certain elements were missing, yet to be discovered. So where Dalton, Newlands and others had laid out what was known, Mendeleev left space for the unknown. Even more amazingly, he accurately predicted the properties of the missing elements.

    Dimitry Mendeleev’s table complete with missing elements. Wikimedia Commons

    Notice the question marks in his table above? For example, next to Al (aluminium) there’s space for an unknown metal. Mendeleev foretold it would have an atomic mass of 68, a density of six grams per cubic centimetre and a very low melting point. Six years later Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, isolated gallium and sure enough it slotted right into the gap with an atomic mass of 69.7, a density of 5.9g/cm³ and a melting point so low that it becomes liquid in your hand. Mendeleev did the same for scandium, germanium and technetium (which wasn’t discovered until 1937, 30 years after his death).

    At first glance Mendeleev’s table doesn’t look much like the one we are familiar with. For one thing, the modern table has a bunch of elements that Mendeleev overlooked (and failed to leave room for), most notably the noble gases (such as helium, neon, argon). And the table is oriented differently to our modern version, with elements we now place together in columns arranged in rows.

    Today’s periodic table. Offnfopt/Wikipedia

    But once you give Mendeleev’s table a 90-degree turn, the similarity to the modern version becomes apparent. For example, the halogens – fluorine (F), chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br), and Iodine (I) (the J symbol in Mendeleev’s table) – all appear next to one another. Today they are arranged in the table’s 17th column (or group 17 as chemists prefer to call it).

    Period of experimentation

    It may seem a small leap from this to the familiar diagram but, years after Mendeleev’s publications, there was plenty of experimentation with alternative layouts for the elements. Even before the table got its permanent right-angle flip, folks suggested some weird and wonderful twists.

    Heinrich Baumhauer’s spiral. Reprinted (adapted) with permission from Types of graphic classifications of the elements. III. Spiral, helical, and miscellaneous charts, G. N. Quam, Mary Battell Quam. Copyright (1934) American Chemical Society.

    One particularly striking example is Heinrich Baumhauer’s spiral, published in 1870, with hydrogen at its centre and elements with increasing atomic mass spiralling outwards. The elements that fall on each of the wheel’s spokes share common properties just as those in a column (group) do so in today’s table. There was also Henry Basset’s rather odd “dumb-bell” formulation of 1892.

    Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 20th century, the table had settled down into a familiar horizontal format with the strikingly modern looking version from Alfred Werner in 1905. For the first time, the noble gases appeared in their now familiar position on the far right of the table. Werner also tried to take a leaf out of Mendeleev’s book by leaving gaps, although he rather overdid the guess work with suggestions for elements lighter than hydrogen and another sitting between hydrogen and helium (none of which exist).

    Alfred Werner’s modern incarnation. Reprinted (adapted) with permission from Types of graphic classifications of the elements. I. Introduction and short tables, G. N. Quam, Mary Battell Quam. Copyright (1934) American Chemical Society.

    Despite this rather modern looking table, there was still a bit of rearranging to be done. Particularly influential was Charles Janet’s version. He took a physicist’s approach to the table and used a newly discovered quantum theory to create a layout based on electron configurations. The resulting “left step” table is still preferred by many physicists. Interestingly, Janet also provided space for elements right up to number 120 despite only 92 being known at the time (we’re only at 118 now).

    Charles Janet’s left-step table. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

    Settling on a design

    The modern table is actually a direct evolution of Janet’s version. The alkali metals (the group topped by lithium) and the alkaline earth metals (topped by beryllium) got shifted from far right to the far left to create a very wide looking (long form) periodic table. The problem with this format is that it doesn’t fit nicely on a page or poster, so largely for aesthetic reasons the f-block elements are usually cut out and deposited below the main table. That’s how we arrived at the table we recognise today.

    That’s not to say folks haven’t tinkered with layouts, often as an attempt to highlight correlations between elements that aren’t readily apparent in the conventional table. There are literally hundreds of variations (check out Mark Leach’s database) with spirals and 3D versions being particularly popular, not to mention more tongue-in-cheek variants.

    3D ‘Mendeleev flower’ version of the table. Тимохова Ольга/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

    How about my own fusion of two iconic graphics, Mendeleev’s table and Henry Beck’s London Underground map below?

    The author’s underground map of the elements. Mark Lorch, Author provided

    Or the dizzy array of imitations that aim to give a science feel to categorising everything from beer to Disney characters, and my particular favourite “irrational nonsense”. All of which go to show how the periodic table of elements has become the iconic symbol of science.The Conversation

    Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • Mark Lorch has written 1 private update. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    13th September 2021 Lord Martin Rees. The latest Great Explanations contributor!

    A short (but very exciting) update!

    Lord Martin Rees, the UK's Astronomer Royal, erstwhile president of the Royal Society and author of numerous popular science books has argreed to contribute to Great Explanations! But, of course, you'll only get to read his essay if the project gets funded, so spread the word :-) 

    9th September 2021 New Great Explanations contributors!

    Announcing! More fabulous contributors to Great Explanations!

    Dr Helen Czerski. Helen is a physicist, oceanographer, presenter, author and bubble enthusiast. She has presented several BBC 4 documentaries on and was one of three presenters of the 2020 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Helen's book Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life received rave reviews from across the spectrum…

    2nd September 2021 Introducing the contributors - Kelly Stanford

    The thing that makes 'Great Explanations' really GREAT, is the diversity of the contributing authors. We've got research scientists, engineers, science writers and science communicators, from the up-and-coming to the well established. I'd like to use these updates to introduce you to all our wonderful writers.

    Starting with Kelly Stanford (aka @thelabartist on twitter).

    Kelly is a science communicator…

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