I was only 15 years old and just a few weeks away from end of term exams when my science teacher said to me ” …. you’ll never be any good at chemistry!”. I trudged home extremely dejected and certainly NOT inspired to do better. I WAS trying exceptionally hard but my parents break up, living on welfare, and having to shop, clean, fish in the sea for food and have a part time job was taking its toll.
I sat on my bed and reluctantly picked up my chemistry textbook, idly flicking through the pages, wondering what was the point. A diagram caught my eye, I knew what it was but had never spent a lot of time on it as there were so many other topics that seemed more important.
Two hours later I was still reading about Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Elements; I was astounded, it was the key to everything and ….. It changed my whole life. A Russian scientist, himself an early failure, inspired me beyond belief, not once but twice!
Mendeleev realised in 1836 that the known chemical elements could be organised into a table or matrix, in a specific sequence, according to density with lightest at the beginning then getting heavier as one went deeper into the table. But it wasn’t just a list, he organised them into rows and columns, where each column in fact formed a group of elements with similar properties. On the other hand the rows moving from left to right indicated a transformation in the elements such as being extremely reactive to not very reactive at all. But the astounding thing was that Mendeleev’s table had gaps in it, places for elements undiscovered but which he knew must exist! It also (in the modern era) encapsulates atomic number, atomic weight, atomic structure and valency. He created something which organises, describes AND predicts.
By the end of the week I had memorised more than half the table but more importantly…… I understood it, and could use it to help my understanding of many other topics. I WAS good at chemistry, Mendeleev showed me how!
Fast forward, nine years later I am awarded a PhD in Chemistry at University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, am offered the job of Deputy Chief Chemist at one of the largest steelworks in the UK, but end up working in the research laboratories of another very large steelworks! But Mendeleev isn’t finished inspiring me yet.
About 10 years later I change careers and go back to university to study psychology. I am working too, I am married with two children and studying part time. Eventually I specialise in Organisation Psychology with something called Systems Thinking being a significant part of it. Anybody see the connections with Mendeleev yet? Organisation Psychology uses models and frameworks to understand and predict organisational behaviour and I eventually ran my own consultancy business with mostly large financial institutions as clients. Sometimes I worked pro-bono with third world schools, other times I would work with CEOs to create transformation strategies where THEY were always looking for clear and understandable descriptions of where they were at and where they were trying to get to. I drew them frameworks with gaps in them, describing current business strategy/structure/people/culture but showing the gaps in where they were trying to reach. In my minds eye it was always systematic like Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, group the right things together, highlight trends, show the gaps. He was still inside my head!
I am now 70 years old, retired, and not seeking inspiration. But in an Epicurean way I can reflect on the past and clearly see PAST inspirations that quite definitely had a perceivable effect. And to end things I was in a school in Kathmandu about 3 years ago observing a chemistry lesson of some 15 year olds when I was asked if I would like to “teach” anything. I picked up the chalk, wiped the board, turned round and asked ” can anyone tell me, in sequence, the first 10 elements of the Periodic Table?”
Categories: Philosophy & Psychology