I can fully understand that Eric Scerri, who has done so much to explain, popularize and clarify the periodic table, would object to my suggestion in a Nature article that “chemists rarely need to refer to it” and that it “holds more interest and glamour for the public than it does for the working chemist”. These statements are too general; I should say “many” (most?) chemists. There are some who surely do use it, and a rather small group of others – Eric among them, of course – who expend a lot of time and thought on the right way to structure it. Those latter questions are interesting and valuable, and I regret that Eric seems to have been offended by an apparent implication (not intended) that they are not.
If I exaggerate, it’s to make a point, which is that it is not terribly good for chemistry if it is seen as being all about the periodic table – and that is the impression I think non-scientists often get. Not only does it obscure what most chemists do, but it leads to the idea that the quantum explanation of the periodic table means that chemistry is “just physics”, or that, now we know all the elements (except ones we make ourselves), “pure” chemistry is pretty much over as an academic discipline (if you don’t believe me, see here). And chemistry is not alone in the risks associated with giving too much emphasis to its organizational schemas, as I say. One could easily get the impression, from Higgs- and LHC-mania (which is fine in itself), that all physicists want to do is find new particles. Yet most physicists never need to consult the tabulation of the standard model, even mentally. Nor do most biologists need to know the genetic code (though of course they learn it anyway). This is not a question of whether these lists and tables and classifications are significant – of course they are. It is about guiding public perception away from the notion that this is what the respective disciplines are all about.
The periodic table is not a “mere list”. It is far richer than that. But chemistry as a whole is much, much richer still, because it is primarily about making things with, and not simply categorizing, its building blocks. I am not convinced that this is widely understood (Tom Lehrer’s song, for all that it’s fun, suggests as much), and I worry that at least some of the excitement about the new elements amounts to the perception that “hey, we’ve completed the list!” That’s the challenge that needs to be faced.