The Periodic Table and the Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone of Quantum Alchemy

12 december 2018 19:30 – 22:00
Locatie: Leuven Chem&Tech, Celestijnenlaan 200F, Leuven, Belgium
Categorie: Jong

Lecturer: Pieter Thyssen, Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, Kardinaal Mercierplein 2, 3000 Leuven, Belgium. Dit e-mailadres wordt beveiligd tegen spambots. JavaScript dient ingeschakeld te zijn om het te bekijken.

Most chemists take it that Mendeleev cracked the problem of organizing the chemical elements 150 years ago. Since then, the periodic table has adorned our laboratory walls as science’s most famous taxonomic chart. Once in a while, of course, a new chemical element is added to the family, but the overall structure of the chart has remained the same ever since it was set in stone back in 1869.

Few chemists realize that Mendeleev’s table has remained something of a mystery till the present day. Despite being the cornerstone of modern chemistry, and despite the quantum revolution, the periodic system has kept its secrets well.

Why, for example, is the periodic chart so oddly shaped? And why do the different periods always come in pairs of equal length, except for the very first period?

No one really knows. Or at least, no one really knew, until a team of scientists embarked on a quest for the symmetries that lie hidden within the periodic table itself. This is the tale of how symmetry provided a key to the table’s secrets, and how it unlocked the door to a more profound understanding of the periodicity in Mendeleev’s chart. [1]

In this lecture, you will be taken on a dazzling voyage through the higher dimensions of group theory in search for the hidden symmetries of the periodic table. We will climb our way up from the familiar valley of three dimensions, via the mind-boggling four-dimensional symmetry of the hydrogen atom, up to the six-dimensional symmetry of the philosopher’s stone of quantum alchemy. Along the way, we will explore the rules of atomic chess, and hunt for the chiral bishop who holds the answer to the origin of the period doubling.

At the end of our journey, we will have obtained an entirely new format of the periodic chart — more elegant and powerful than ever before. One thing is certain, after this lecture, you will never look at Mendeleev’s polychromatic icon the same way again.


[1] P. Thyssen, A. Ceulemans, Shattered Symmetry: Group Theory from the Eightfold Way to the Periodic Table. Oxford University Press, New York, 2017.

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