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Science Communication


A linguistic homage and musical elements

by Alexandra A. Taylor
January 11, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 2


An illustration of Dmitri Mendeleev sitting at a desk and working on the periodic table.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Cheat sheet: Mendeleev may have been inspired by the Sanskrit alphabet in developing his periodic table.

Elements of Sanskrit

Chemists familiar with the history of the periodic table may be aware that Dmitri Mendeleev gave the prefixes eka, dvi, and tri (Sanskrit for “one,” “two,” and “three”) to eight then-unknown elements. Eka-aluminium, so named because it sat one below aluminum on Mendeleev’s table, was later named gallium, for example. But why he chose the ancient language has remained a bit of a mystery. A recent article in American Scientist, “The Grammar of the Elements,” attempts to answer it (2019, DOI: 10.1511/2019.107.6.350).

Abhik Ghosh, a chemistry professor at UiT the Arctic University of Norway who is fluent in Sanskrit, came across a decades-old post by Stanford University linguist Paul Kiparsky on a South Asian studies forum called Indology. Kiparsky had posited that Mendeleev was influenced by his friendship with leading Sanskrit scholar Otto von Böhtlingk in the years leading up to the publication of Mendeleev’s first periodic table. Ghosh and Kiparsky decided to collaborate on an article expanding on Kiparsky’s theory.

The scholars say Mendeleev was a protégé of von Böhtlingk, who helped him publish papers and nominated him for an important prize. The Sanskrit alphabet, which von Böhtlingk would have known intimately, was itself a periodic system: the arrangement demonstrates how letters can combine to form sounds, much like the periodic table of elements shows how various elements can combine to form compounds.

“Let’s imagine they went for lunch every other day or so and discussed each other’s work. And Mendeleev talked about how he could arrange the elements, and von Böhtlingk told about the Sanskrit alphabet,” Ghosh tells Newscripts. “So while Mendeleev was struggling with organizing the elements, he had the example of another periodic system in front of him.”

Ghosh expects that when Mendeleev named those eight mystery elements, he was paying homage to the Sanskrit alphabet and its developer, the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Pāṇini. But he stresses that Pāṇini’s system was an influence on rather than the inspiration for Mendeleev’s table.

Ghosh says he and Kiparsky have received enthusiastic feedback from chemists happy to learn the origin of the prefixes. The pair hopes to find someone fluent in Mendeleev’s dialect of Russian who can translate his correspondence to shed more light on his relationship with von Böhtlingk.


An audible gas

A diagram of hydrogen's emission spectra.
Credit: Jill Linz
New wave: Jill Linz's method converts hydrogen's visible emission spectrum to wavelengths of sound. Click here to hear what that sounds like.

Speaking of collaborations, Jill Linz has been busy lately. The Skidmore College physics instructor has used the sonification of atoms in her courses for years but has been inundated with interest after she described her work in a Physics Today article in January 2019 (DOI: 10.1063/PT.6.5.20190125a). The article led to an invitation to speak at the 178th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in December.

An illustration of a phone displaying a periodic table and playing music.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Heavy metal: Jill Linz's atom music lets the elements express themselves through song.

Linz came up with atom music after looking for a way to get nonphysics majors interested in wavelength and frequency. She developed a scale factor to convert the visible spectrum to an audible scale of 0–1,000 Hz. The effect is a characteristic noise for each element.

She’s also developed scales for the elements using frequencies derived from their atomic spectra, so one could play the scale of helium on the piano, for example. “Those are much more musical,” she tells Newscripts.

After going public with her work, Linz says musicians have asked to use her scales to compose. Others want to use them to help teach blind students. She’s also working on a concept album: music of the atoms from the atoms’ perspectives.

Perhaps most importantly, her sonification project has been a hit with her digital synthesis students, who learn to create music using digital synthesizers. “They actually want to take the class just to do this,” she says.

Alexandra Taylor wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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