Spotlight on the table of elements

We become familiar with the periodic table of elements in school. The shape and layout is instantly recognisable.

How often though do we stop to think about what the table represents? Or its history?

Dmitry Mendeleev organised the chemical elements into this structure 150 years ago. Now, Courtney Addison from the Centre for Science in Society has co-edited a series with Deakin University’s Timothy Neale and Thao Phan. An Anthropogenic Table of Elements is a collection of essays that “take an ironic stance towards the functionalism and naturalism of the chemical sciences, nominating materials, beings, forces, and other entities that are elemental to our present anthropogenic predicaments.”

This view puts the human need to classify under critical examination using substances that are not in the periodic table, but are key to our current way of life, whether we know it or not. The essays cover: Compound 1080 (Sodium Monofluoroacetate), Aquifers (or, Hydrolithic Elemental Choreographies), Calcium Carbonate, Cement, Ice, Magnesium, Malhar, Mercury, Poly- and Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS), Phosphorus, Seeds, Silicon, and Strontium.

Courtney wrote about 1080, a controversial poison used throughout in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have a huge problem with invasive pests, and 1080 has been used to control rats, mice, and stoats since 1954. Its long use is not a reflection of its endorsement though. The use of 1080 is a polarising issue which Courtney explores in her work. She argues that current debates over 1080 have to be put in context: we must understand where this substance came from, and how Aotearoa’s colonial history laid the groundwork for its uptake.

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