#4: The Missing Pieces in Periodicity


Why am I doing this? Why am I here? What is the purpose of all this? It’s a simple question, really. At least, it should be. But it seems to be one that everyone struggles with at some I am a cross country runner, and a lot of the time, when I’m out on the course, I’m just asking myself, why? Why do I put myself through this? Why did I choose the sport that other sports use to punish their athletes? But when I see my teammates or my coach on the sidelines, I immediately pick up the pace because they remind me why I run. It’s not for a finish line and it’s not for a new PR. I run because it’s fun. It’s a team effort. It’s the feeling you get when you’re cresting a hill or sprinting to the finish. The feeling of freedom you get; like no one in the world, can touch you. And it’s not even that I’m particularly fast. I run varsity at most races, but I’m never the fastest. Even when I run JV, it’s not like I win. But that’s not the point at all. It’s not even close.

So I was thinking about why I write, and why I’m here. I was thinking about why I do what I do; because, in the words of Sinek, “if you don’t know why you do what you do, and people respond to why you do what you do, how will you ever get people to vote for you or buy something from you, or more importantly, be loyal to cause?” I’ve been tossing that thought around in my mind since Wednesday, and then I got this Chem assignment. I didn’t quite understand it, so I did some research. A few loosely-related YouTube videos deep, I stumbled upon a video about Dmitri Mendeleev.
Dmitri Mendeleev was the iconic chemist who created the periodic table. He said it came to him in a dream and when he woke up he just had to write it down. He loved chemistry. He loved how logical it was and up to that point, Mendeleev’s life had followed no sort of logical pattern.

He was born into a middle class family in the Siberian town of Tobolsk, Russia. His family lived not lavishly, but comfortably until Dmitri’s father, a professor went blind. This forced his mother, Mariya Dmitriyevna Kornileva, to work as a manager at a glass factory, as there wasn’t much work for blind men in nineteenth-century Siberian Russia. The family continued to scrape by, even through the death of Mendeleev’s father in 1847. They managed quite well, in fact, until 1848, when the factory that Mendeleev’s mother worked in burnt to ground.

Then, in 1850, Mariya Dmitriyevna Kornileva walked her son Dmitri one thousand miles, all the way to the University of Moscow, in Moscow and begged them to accept him. They refused, but her determination was unfaltering. She believed in her son. She wanted to give her son the first class education he deserved. It didn’t matter how. So she and Mendeleev walked the five hundred miles to St. Petersburg, where he was accepted with a full scholarship to the University of Pedagogy. And they accepted him, not for his credentials, but because his mother had walked His mother fell quite ill and died later than year, which only made Dmitri Mendeleev, then orphaned, study even harder. Maybe he did it so his mother didn’t die for nothing, maybe he did it because he wanted to prove that this poor boy from Siberia, who’s father was blind and who’s mother couldn’t pay for his education despite years of being the sole provider for her family, could do something worth remembering. But one thing I know for sure, is that Dmitri Mendeleev loved what he did. He believed in what he did. He believed in himself just like, and maybe because, his mother has so strongly believed in him.

In the words of Sinek, “there are leaders and there are those who lead.” And Dmitri Mendeleev was one who lead. He wasn’t in any position of power, he was totally unknown. He was off the map. But his capacity for logic and for organization, coming from a world with virtually none, paired with the unfathomable drive and stubbornness he’d inherited from his mother, were enough to lead to the monumental discovery of the periodic law and the periodic table of elements.

Now, back in the 1860s not a lot was known of chemistry, it being a relatively new concept, and elements were organized by their atomic weights, typically. However, Dmitri Mendeleev, along with a few other chemists, noticed that the way they were organized didn’t reflect the relationships between their chemical compositions. There was a relationship between elements of similar atomic mass, only it was periodic. He organized the 63 known elements into periods and families based on their atomic masses. And perhaps what is most remarkable about this is that there were many other chemists who knew that there were better ways to organize and to look at elements, yet Dmitri Mendeleev was the only one to do anything about it.

At first the periods occurred every seven elements. Of course, now we know it’s every eight elements, but as elements were studied based on their reactivity back in the 1800s, the non-reactive noble gases had not been discovered. The number of elements per period increased as the table went on, and as more elements were added. However, this began to mess up the periodicity. It was effective, but it wasn’t perfect. While most chemists were satisfied– even excited– by Mendeleev’s imperfect discovery. Mendeleev became obsessed with perfecting the periodic table. He wrote down elements on cards. He organized and reorganized them on his desk until one day he realized, he was simply missing cards and that there were many, many more elements he still had left to discover. So, he added gaps into the table and predicted the properties of the unknown elements based on their period and family and he was right.

A french scientist even told Mendeleev that he had discovered on of those elements, and Mendeleev argued with him. He said that he had discovered this element (Gallium) first, in his mind. So he reviewed the data of the french man, and proceeded to publish a paper saying that his data he collected observing the element that he discovered– was wrong. That was how certain Mendeleev was of himself and the perfect theoretical-chemical framework he’d creative. Perhaps the craziest part of this story– the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae– was that Mendeleev was right! The data collected was incorrect. Mendeleev knew more about the element than the man claiming to have discovered it without ever even observing it. Why? Because he was Dmitri Mendeleev, a man with a drive unmatched by any man or woman out there.

The point of Mendeleev’s story isn’t to say that he was the crown jewel of chemistry in his time (though he was) or that no one else would have discovered the periodicity of elements had he not. There were many people who could have done that, and who probably would have. As many as six people published on the periodicity of elements at the same time as Mendeleev did. But something set Mendeleev apart. None of them had the same ferocity, the obsessiveness, the irrational determination, that Medeleev had. That was why he was first. That was what set him apart. He knew the data better than anyone else. He realized more than anyone else did that periodicity had far-reaching, revolutionary consequences for Chemistry. He truly believed in the cosmic importance of his story. He was practically religious about it. The thing is, Medeleev believed in God, but not in organized religion. He thought that no one could really know God if they didn’t follow their own path to knowing him. I like to think that, through this Periodic Table of the Elements, he felt like he was getting to know God in his own right. He was getting to know his creator in a way that no one else had, and perhaps no one else ever would. Of course, that’s just a thought.

Nonetheless, Mendeleev believed in himself in a way that I think everyone should aspire to. He knew his principles. He knew where he stood and he was okay with it. But he also changed chemistry forever simply because he could.

So now, it’s my turn. I am here because when I look at my brother, who has sever epileptic autism, I don’t see what he could have been. I don’t see him as diminished individual in any way, shape or form. His autism isn’t  disability, or an inconvenience it’s personality trait. It’s part of who he his. And it kills me when people underestimate him. I am here because I want everyone to see people with mental health issues for more than just their disorder or disability.

As for the how, I’m not sure of it yet. I have a couple ideas. I think I could go to the parent-center and interview some people. There are also a couple people I could talk to at CSAC and Central Vermont Hospital. Maybe even at the library or my local high school. I’ll talk to them, I’ll get their insights.

And finally, the what. I don’t really know what it is I’m doing if I’m being perfectly honest. Am I making a documentary here? Am I making a difference? Am I getting credit at my high school? Finding something new to put on my college application? No. What I plan to do here is more than that, because as Sinek said, “the goal is not just to sell to people who need what you have, but to people who believe what you believe.” So I guess what I’m doing here is finding those people. I’m finding their voices, and hopefully, I’m giving them a microphone.


Maisie Newbury

2 Responses to “#4: The Missing Pieces in Periodicity

  • Maisie, I think it’s wonderful that you’re pushing yourself to think about exactly what you want your project to be, and how that “what” has the potential to create the change you want to enact. Sometimes, the simple act of allowing those who are marginalized to share their individual voices can be the most powerful rhetoric and lead to significant cultural perceptual shifts. To expose a segment of society that is typically ignored, to give your audience an opportunity to glimpse their humanity – these are the first, most important foundational steps in introducing a social problem to your community.

    I admire your honesty in reflecting on your “why”s for pursuing this particular topic, and your post this week reveals that, in the end, you’re motivated internally. That drive, combined with some further probing of “how,” will surely lead to an authentic, relatable, and influential final product. In addition to the excellent sources of information and insight that you’ve already identified above, you might consider reaching out to local college and university disability studies faculty. Susan Burch, for example, teaches here at Middlebury College (see http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/amst/faculty/node/52261) and the renowned Brenda Brueggemann is on the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English (see http://english.uconn.edu/brenda-jo-brueggemann/, where she teaches during the academic year). I know that Brenda is a great supporter of Bread Loaf Teacher Network efforts, so if you explain your connection through this course, she might be willing to offer some of her thoughts.

    Wishing you an exciting week of further discovery,

  • Maisie,

    Thank you for this. It’s wonderful in so many ways. I love Sinek’s thinking, that’s why I asked others to watch, but I love reading these posts and seeing the quotes that stood out to individuals. It always resets my own thinking on Sinek’s theory of creating passion and empathy.

    I love the idea of stories and simply telling the stories of those that are termed “other” (whether that’s a disability, or religion, or race, or something else) humanizes people in ways that are virtually impossible to not connect with.

    In terms of those that you might connect with, I think we should brainstorm about some real cutting-edge advocates and perhaps advocates for a variety of people who experience “otherness.” There’s a wonderful collection of micro-stories written years ago by incoming Colby College first year students. I would often use it when I was teaching ENG 100 at MUHS. Here is a link:


    Let me know how this shapes your thinking.


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