Adventures in Ethics and Science

The myth that will not die.

Dear Sarah Gardner and Marketplace producers,

I listened with interest to your story on today’s show about the current prospects for the solar energy sector. While the story was engaging, I have a nit to pick.

In the course of listing the elemental components of photovoltaic solar panels, you referred to them as part of “that periodic table you were supposed to have memorized” in high school chemistry.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is not standard practice to memorize the periodic table (or to make students memorize it). They hang it there in the classroom, for goodness sake! Why waste the money on a large wall-chart (or on photocopies of the table handed out with exams) if students are supposed to have what’s on the periodic table committed to memory?

Chemists do not memorize the periodic table. Rather, they learn how to use it.

Please stop propagating this myth about standard chemistry pedagogy. In return, I will do my best not to spread misinformation about how economics is taught.


Dr. Free-Ride


  1. #1 IBY
    October 15, 2008

    Yeah, I am always irritated by horror stories of people memorizing it. Once, my mother asked my brother whether they were memorizing it, and she thought they should. It took a while for me to explain that the reason they had the table was so that they didn’t have to memorize it.

  2. #2 Susan B.
    October 15, 2008

    I certainly was never made to memorize the Periodic Table. Of course, we made so much use of the atomic number, mass, etc. of the lighter elements that I had memorized most of the details of the first ten or so just from sheer force of looking them up so many times.

  3. #3 Barney
    October 15, 2008

    I have to sadly admit to having to memorize it in junior high (’83-’84) due to a sadistic but strangely good science teacher. (Despite that, I promptly forgot where almost everything was in high school, which is why I’m now teaching organic chemistry.)

  4. #4 NoAstronomer
    October 15, 2008

    Err … actually I was *supposed* to memorize it (UK in the late 1970s) I recalled just enough of the chart to pass the test.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    October 16, 2008

    Professor Sadoway made us memorize the Periodic Table, save for the lanthanides and actinides, in introductory solid-state chemistry at MIT. (We did not have to learn the atomic weights or boiling points or electronegativities; those were on the Table to be looked up.)

  6. #6 winnebago
    October 16, 2008

    We were coerced into memorizing it in 11th grade chem class.

  7. #7 Thomas
    October 16, 2008

    At my college chemistry students were supposed to memorize the periodic table for a test. No one expected them to remember all of it afterwards, the point was that you should remember enough to have an idea where every element belonged without looking it up. There might also have been the idea to weed out students without sufficient dedications early on.

  8. #8 JYB
    October 16, 2008

    Now memorizing the Preamble on the other hand……

  9. #9 chris y
    October 16, 2008

    I once memorised a song by Tom Lehrer. Does that count?

  10. #10 Dr. Kate
    October 16, 2008

    My high school chemistry teacher required us to memorize the names and symbols of the first 20 or so. (Because I am a geek, I promptly took it as a challenge to memorize names/symbols of all elements–at least, all the ones that existed in the mid-90s. I still know them all.) But we never had to memorize atomic weights/numbers or anything like that. (Although like Susan B I ended up knowing most of the common ones anyway.)

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    October 16, 2008

    Damn. I thought I was s’posed to memorize it. Wasted time..

  12. #12 joan
    October 16, 2008

    We had to learn chucks of it for quizzes, but not the whole thing.

    For those that memorized needlessly, put your knowledge to use! Free rice has a chem section now. For each one you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated to the UN World Food Program:

    For those that didn’t they have other subjects too:

  13. #13 Philip H.
    October 16, 2008

    I keep telling people that memorization exercises in science instruction are really about bad instructors. I never memorized the periodic table, nor did I memorize any of the equations of motion pertaining to ocean waves, tides, etc. I can llok them up on Google these days, unless I need to dust my physical oceanography books.

    On the other hand, I really remember the methids that I was shown about how to critically assess the relationships of chemicals to biological processes that interest me.

  14. #14 Theo Bromine
    October 16, 2008

    At highschool in the 1970s, I recall memorizing up to krypton or so (though I am not sure whether I just did it to be geeky or whether it was assigned). I think we did have to memorize the halogens, alkali metals, and noble gases. We also were acquainted with Mr P.S.C Mazintl.

  15. #15 Carrie
    October 16, 2008

    In our first semester chemistry in college we had to memorize the table AND the atomic weights. It was a terrible waste of memory and time, and didn’t help me learn chemistry!

  16. #16 Laurent
    October 17, 2008

    Overseas you have to memorize it too, plus atomic weights.

  17. #17 The Chemist
    October 17, 2008

    I’ve never memorized the periodic table. There are some elements (Duh! Carbon, Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc.) that I know by heart after looking it up so often. Meanwhile I invested ten bucks into hanging a classroom size version of the periodic table above my desk because I hate flipping to the back of my book and I always lose photocopies.

    Hell the ACS, which certifies professional chemists, provides periodic tables and lists of important constants during examinations.

  18. #18 Thomas M.
    October 19, 2008

    I was forced to memorize the table in high school. I thought it was utterly ridiculous and I’m glad to see that many teachers agree. It was in the wall in the classroom, but it was kept covered during that particular test.

  19. #19 Eric
    October 21, 2008

    I memorized *parts* of the table for high school chemistry, mostly things like the alkali metals, alkali earth metals, halogens, and some of the other non-metals (and their order from top to bottom). It was helpful, for example, to know that the next row down from Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen was Silicon, Phosphorous, and Sulfur, or to make it really easy to predict the activities of various acids and bases. It sure helped me out later in organic chemistry, too.

    I don’t begrudge the teacher for making us learn parts of the table, as he kept it to a minimum, and it really turned out to be useful. I would, however, have chafed if I had to learn more than I did.