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Plans underway to create world's largest periodic table at GVSU

  • Volunteers on July 18 place blocks showing the elements of the periodic table.
  • Volunteers on July 18 place blocks showing the elements of the periodic table.
  • Volunteers on July 18 place blocks showing the elements of the periodic table.
  • Volunteers on July 18 at the end of their trial run for an attempt at creating the world's largest periodic table.
  • A salt shaker was added to the block for the element sodium, one of the many creative touches on the blocks that have been designed.

Posted on July 18, 2019

In a storage room behind the Loutit Lecture Halls, the makings of what could be the world's largest periodic table are taking shape.

Michelle DeWitt, lead lab supervisor for the Chemistry Department, is collecting handmade blocks of six fastened tablecloths containing the atomic number, element name, element symbol and atomic weight of each element in the periodic table. 

The plan is to place all 118 blocks on the track at the Kelly Family Sports Center on Oct. 19 as part of a celebration of National Chemistry Week. The Physics Department will lend its lasers for precise measuring to document the attempt at creating the largest periodic table for submission to Guiness World Records.

To volunteer for the event, sign up here:

DeWitt led a trial run on July 18 by placing a handful of blocks to understand logistics. In its entirety, the piece will stretch about 108 yards in width, with each block measuring about 18 feet by 13.5 feet.

She said the attempt coincides with the 150th anniversary of the periodic table. The United Nations declared 2019 as the international year of the periodic table; its Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization has included GVSU's plan on a world map showing events to coincide with that designation.

The GVSU event has attracted participants from across the nation and even from India. In addition, West Michigan companies, campus organizations and local high schools have signed on to create a block.

"This is a good way to bring in the community," DeWitt said.

Doug Ragan, a chemistry teacher at Hudsonville High School, said he was inspired to get involved in part because a number of his colleagues in the 1990s created what was then the largest periodic table on a soccer field. He enlisted his students to help in the creation of a block -- cadmium (symbol Cd, No. 48) -- and will have students help at the event in October.

He noted that a periodic table is widely recognizable, in part because it's in every high school chemistry classroom. Pop cultural references to some element symbols have also helped students relate to it. His challenge is to encourage students to fully understand the table's worth beyond the individual elements.

"The first thing students ask is if they have to memorize it," Ragan said. "I tell them 'no' but that they should familiarize themselves with it to use it as a tool, to understand how it is arranged. The periodic table can deliver to them so much information if they take the time to fully understand it." 

The block from Hagan and his students uses Hudsonville's school colors, yellow and blue. DeWitt said many participants have chosen elements for personal reasons or provided their own flourishes.

For example, Monica Johnstone from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences chose berkelium (Bk, No. 97) because it is named for Berkeley, Calif., and her alma mater is the University of California at Berkeley. She also used her quilting skills on her piece. Other creative touches have included using a salt shaker on sodium (Na, No. 11) and wrapping wire around the name platinum (Pt, No. 78). 

The last two elements to be claimed were praseodymium (Pr, No. 59) and roentgenium (Rg, No. 111), DeWitt said, likely because they created no personal attachment through initials or their origin.

In the meantime, DeWitt awaits delivery of the rest of the blocks that were claimed. And if any end up missing, she has her glue gun ready.

"I think the contingency plan is that we make them," she said.