Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 69–81

What is an element? What is the periodic table? And what does quantum mechanics contribute to the question?



This article considers two important traditions concerning the chemical elements. The first is the meaning of the term “element” including the distinctions between element as basic substance, as simple substance and as combined simple substance. In addition to briefly tracing the historical development of these distinctions, I make comments on the recent attempts to clarify the fundamental notion of element as basic substance for which I believe the term “element” is best reserved. This discussion has focused on the writings of Fritz Paneth which are here analyzed from a new perspective. The other tradition concerns the reduction of chemistry to quantum mechanics and an understanding of chemical elements through their microscopic components such as protons, neutrons and electrons. I claim that the use of electronic configurations has still not yet settled the question of the placement of several elements and discuss an alternative criterion based on maximizing triads of elements. I also point out another possible limitation to the reductive approach, namely the failure, up to now, to obtain a derivation of the Madelung rule. Mention is made of some recent similarity studies which could be used to clarify the nature of ‘elements’. Although it has been suggested that the notion of element as basic substance should be considered in terms of fundamental particles like protons and electrons, I resist this move and conclude that the quantum mechanical tradition has not had much impact on the question of what is an element which remains an essentially philosophical issue.


Element Basic substance Paneth Quantum mechanics Periodic table Madelung rule 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry and BiochemistryUCLALos AngelesUSA

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