Can’t Find Hydrogen? Check Your Periodic Table (Reed Magazine Summer ’09)

A few summers after I arrived at Reed, I found myself hunting for a book in the chemistry section of the Hauser library (Old Reedies, i.e., anyone who arrived at Reed prior to me (1989), will be confused by this statement because the chemistry “library” had been kept in the chemistry building before then). I don’t recall what I was looking for, or whether I ever went back for it, because I bumped into my colleague, Prof. Marsh Cronyn ’40, and this completely derailed my book search.

Instead of the quiet passing of two bookworms that I was expecting, Marsh proceeded to ask me if I had ever heard of this “idiot” or read the book he had just written. He was pointing to a specific book, and once I identified his target, I realized that not only had I ordered for the library myself, I had also purchased a personal copy and had resolved to plumb its secrets before the summer was over.

In another set of circumstances, I might have come to the book’s defense, but I wasn’t up to the task that day. Perhaps it was because I was still feeling my way around. Perhaps it was because the book was very thick and the possibility that some part of it looked like the ramblings of an idiot couldn’t be ruled out. Or perhaps it was because it was a pleasant summer afternoon. Whatever the reason, I mumbled something about having heard of the book. This, it seems, provided just the opening that Marsh was looking for because he then proceeded to tell me about his theory that the periodic table needed to be revamped and hydrogen needed to be moved from its position on the left side to a spot over carbon. Here’s a taste of what he had to say:

“The assignment of hydrogen to the alkali-metal family of elements,
because it has one electron in its outer shell, is no less absurd than
it would be to place helium over beryllium because it has two outer
electrons. Both statements omit context for these electrons and belong
to numerology and not chemistry.”

It’s hard to argue with logic like this, but the relocation of hydrogen still seems like a strange idea to me. Nevertheless, Marsh was taken by it and a few years later he published an article on this topic in the Journal of Chemical Education. Shortly after that the periodic table in the chemistry classroom (Rm. 301) took on a new look. If you would like to learn more about Marsh’s ideas, read The Proper Place for Hydrogen in the Periodic Table in the Summer 2009 issue of the Reed magazine.

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