Challenges for the Periodic Systems of Elements: Chemical, Historical and Mathematical Perspectives

We celebrate 150 years of periodic systems that reached their maturity in the 1860s. They began as pedagogical efforts to project corpuses of substances on the similarity and order relationships of the chemical elements. However, these elements are not the canned substances wrongly displayed in many periodic tables, but rather the abstract preserved entities in compound transformations. We celebrate the systems, rather than their tables or ultimate table. The periodic law, we argue, is not an all‐encompassing achievement, as it does not apply to every property of all elements and compounds. Periodic systems have been generalised as ordered hypergraphs, which solves the long‐lasting question on the mathematical structure of the systems. In this essay, it is shown that these hypergraphs may solve current issues such as order reversals in super‐heavy elements and lack of system predictive power. We discuss research in extending the limits of the systems in the super‐heavy‐atom region and draw attention to other limits: the antimatter region and the limit arising from compounds under extreme conditions. As systems depend on the known chemical substances (chemical space) and such a space grows exponentially, we wonder whether systems still aim at projecting knowledge of compounds on the relationships among the elements. We claim that systems are not based on compounds anymore, rather on 20th century projections of the 1860s systems of elements on systems of atoms. These projections bring about oversimplifications based on entities far from being related to compounds. A linked oversimplification is the myth of vertical group similarity, which raises questions on the approaches to locate new elements in the system. Finally, we propose bringing back chemistry to the systems by exploring similarity and order relationships of elements using the current information of the chemical space. We ponder whether 19th century periodic systems are still there or whether they have faded away, leaving us with an empty 150th celebration.


Challenges for the Periodic Systems of Elements: Chemical, Historical and Mathematical Perspective

Guillermo Restrepo

Chemistry – A European Journal