When I was a boy first falling in love with chemistry, the Periodic Table excited me with its infinite possibilities. Today, it still does.
As 2019 winds down, we also come to the end of the world’s year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev’s development of the Periodic Table. I’ve enjoyed reading the many commemorative features, including stories from my own colleagues. I’ve also enjoyed the reflections that the occasion has prompted regarding my own development as a scientist.
As the son of a chemist, the Periodic Table has been part of my life almost as long as the alphabet has. In middle school, I learned the chemical symbols and atomic numbers of the elements the way other kids learn state capitals or baseball statistics. I never mastered the art of singing the elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan, but I still get a kick out of Tom Lehrer’s performance today.
Growing up with a chemist for a dad meant we had some really cool magazines delivered to our home, including Science and Chemical Engineering News. Every week there were new scientific and technical discoveries that fascinated me. I didn’t understand most of what I read, of course, but it was enough to fire my imagination. I particularly recall the way the magazine covers intrigued me. In those days, electron microscopy was all the rage, and Science often featured photomicrographs on the cover – images you wouldn’t see anyplace else. As each new issue arrived, I’d savor the image and then look inside for the explanation of what I was seeing. That alone was enough to get my brain spinning and fuel my love affair with science.
Like many kids growing up in the early 1960s, I had a chemistry set to play with at home. Before the passage of the Toy Safety Act of 1969 and the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972, toy chemistry sets included many more components than what’s allowed today. (Believe it or not, some 1950s-era chemistry kits contained radioactive ores and Geiger counters!) I remember being particularly excited about the alcohol burner. Typical of a pre-adolescent boy, I was most interested in things that created cool flames or emitted a foul odor. I recall an experiment with sulfur that made a strong impression on me – as well as my mother.
Even more exciting were the opportunities to do experiments with my dad in his lab on weekends. One that stands out in my mind was a project on how to grow crystals. We worked with a lot of the quintessential chemistry equipment that seems especially cool when you’re a kid, such as graduated cylinders, beakers, and hot plates. That experiment also showed me how materials can transform to create something new – something that is an integral part of Corning’s work today.
Thanks to these experiments, I already had hands-on experience with several of the elements by the time I formally studied the Periodic Table in the fifth or sixth grade. I remember how excited I was by the sheer number of elements, and the potential for interactions that I couldn’t even begin to imagine. I also marveled at the knowledge that each element, despite having close neighbors, was truly unique – a fact I continue to marvel at today.
Through high school and college, I expanded my chemistry vocabulary, and – after a brief flirtation with biology as a major – I realized chemistry was my true passion. I gained a greater appreciation for the significance of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table as the beginning of modern chemical research versus the serendipitous and often arbitrary alchemy practiced previously. I was also awed by his accuracy in predicting some of the as-yet-undiscovered elements.
For a time, I found the discovery of new elements tremendously exciting. In fact, up until the 103rd element or so, the occurrence used to be an international event and front-page news in the science community. Today, such developments are still interesting from a theoretical perspective, of course, but the discovery of new elements is no longer revolutionary, since they are invariably radioactive with short lifespans and/or extremely limited availability. For me, the real excitement lies in the richness and untapped potential of our existing tool set.
As someone who has practiced chemistry for more than four decades, I am fascinated by the ability to continuously create breakthrough innovations from simple elements. For example, Corning recently developed a revolutionary way to make alumina, which is just aluminum and oxygen – two of the most common materials on the Periodic Table. We have leveraged that material innovation to develop an ultra-thin, flexible ceramic ribbon for use in LEDs, Power Electronics, and radio frequency (RF) applications. This is a great example of how we can use a material that has been around forever to create a new, unique set of properties.
Glass is even more versatile than ceramics. As my colleagues have noted, silicon is an extremely gracious collaborator with its friends on the Periodic Table, which we can take advantage of to produce nearly infinite glass compositions with distinctive attributes. The combinations often defy the conventional wisdom of the time. For example, although borosilicate glass is fairly common today, back in the 18th century, the notion of adding boron to glass would have been regarded as preposterous. More recently, we’ve created unexpected properties with metals. And today, scientists at Corning continue to explore new combinations of elements, including tapping some of the more exotic sections of the Periodic Table. While such possibilities are exciting, indeed, we don’t need to venture into the Periodic Table’s wild west to create breakthrough innovations. When people ask me what ingredients I’m curious about, they are often surprised by my humble choices. For example, one element that hasn’t been used much in glass forming is nitrogen, which appears very early on the Periodic Table. I’ve always been curious about how far we could go with glasses that contain both nitrogen and oxygen.
It’s premature for me to speculate on those possibilities, but the key takeaway is this: Even with common and simple ingredients, scientists continue to create breakthrough innovations and push the boundaries of what’s possible. And, as we employ new methods such as artificial intelligence to augment our thinking, we rely more than ever on our existing knowledge about the properties and relationships between the elements. Thus, Mendeleev’s work is forever relevant. And speaking for myself, if we never discovered another element, I’d be perfectly content. We have more than enough building blocks to keep us inspired and innovating for eternity.