A macramé periodic table, medieval nun’s teeth illuminate her artisanship, elements through the ages

This year marks 150 years since the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev created the world’s first periodic table and to celebrate UNESCO has designated it the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. But now biochemistry graduate Jane Stewart has created her own tribute: a macramé version of the table. The ancient art of macramé — the art of knotting string in patterns — originated in Arabia where the word comes from the Arabic migramah, which means “fringe” and was used to finish off a weaver’s work. Stewart used a metallic crochet thread, which is about the same thickness as embroidery thread, to create the table, which measures 100 x 60 cm. The table contains about 200,000 “half hitch” knots and with each element taking over two hours to complete, Stewart spent at least 240 hours putting it together.

“I learnt there are a heck of a lot of transition metals,” Stewart says, “and needed a lot of moral support to keep going through them for more than a month.” If you want to see the table for yourself, then it will be appearing at several events throughout the year including at the opening ceremony in Paris later this month.

Another story this week that combines art and chemistry comes from The Atlantic, where Sarah Zhang describes how researchers in the UK and Germany have found evidence that nuns illustrated medieval manuscripts. Anita Radini, now at the University of York, and Christina Warinner at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History discovered tiny amounts of the pigment ultramarine in the dental plaque of a German nun who died about 1000 years ago. The pigment was made from lapis lazuli from a mine in Afghanistan and would have been rare and very expensive back then. Ultramarine was used to illustrate manuscripts, providing further evidence that nuns as well as monks were involved in producing the books. The discovery has some archaeologists very excited, because it suggests that clues about the occupation of a person could be gleaned from their plaque.

The above video was made by Jamie Gallagher and shows the elements in order of discovery from 1718 to 2018. It takes 99 s to watch and it is interesting to see the table fill-in rapidly throughout the 19th century. See if you can spot an error or two in the table (pay attention to the actinides and lanthanides).

We will be celebrating the periodic table throughout 2019 and coming up in the February issue, our regular columnist Bob Crease will describe how more than a thousand different versions of the table have been crafted since 1869. We are still putting the final touches on the article, which will be published online next month. As a taster, take a look at the “The Internet database of periodic tables”, in which chemist Mark Leach documents hundreds of tables.


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