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International Year of the Periodic Table

– in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-18139, in the name of Iain Gray, on the international year of the periodic table. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges that 2019 has been designated by UNESCO as the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT) in tandem with the 150th anniversary of the Mendeleev periodic table; understands that the periodic table is an intrinsic tool to the study and practice of science and is regarded as one of human history’s greatest advancements; commends the work of the Royal Society of Chemistry and others to promote IYPT and inspire the next generation of innovators; celebrates Scotland’s rich scientific history and the impact that it has had across the world, and recognises a need to continue to support scientific research, STEM education, international collaboration, skills development and sustainability in order to continue Scotland’s legacy as a world leader in science.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I am delighted to lead this debate on the international year of the periodic table, in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mendeleev’s first real periodic table as we know it today, and we mark science in the Parliament day, which has been taking place across the road in Dynamic Earth.

Any of the chemistry teachers with whom I worked decades ago when I was a physics teacher would probably think it a little ironic that I am bringing this debate to the Parliament, because, with all the hubris of the young, I used to cheerfully disparage chemistry as a discipline, arguing that it was little more than footnotes to physics or, worse, a kind of cookery with recipes—members should hear what I used to say about biology.

Now, with the wisdom of age, I know that I was talking rubbish then, and the periodic table is the central proof of that, because it represented a scientific revolution—in the sense that, after the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, we know that natural science progresses. After all, for centuries science had operated on the idea of four elements—air, earth, fire and water—which had not changed since Aristotle.

When Mendeleev built on the work of Priestley, La Voisier and our own Joseph Black and John Newlands to publish, in 1869, a new table of the known elements, according to atomic weight and valence, it was the final transition from the age of alchemy to the age of chemistry, a scientific revolution as dramatic as Copernican astronomy, Newton’s mechanics or Einstein’s relativity. Like so many of those discoveries, it had an element of intuitive insight about it; Mendeleev claimed to have dreamed the table with only one correction to be made. Its structure apparently reflected his love of playing patience with cards.

The table is a genuine scientific paradigm, because it allows predictions to be made, in the first case, of then undiscovered elements. Mendeleev himself used it to predict the existence and properties of germanium, gallium and scandium, although, once again, he reached for his mystical side and gave them names from Sanskrit.

Others followed in those footsteps, including Scot Sir William Ramsay, who predicted and then discovered the noble gases, for which he received the Nobel prize in 1902. Newer elements have since been created in the lab, with the most recent, oganesson, being confirmed only in 2016.

Although the periodic table has had many representations—as a spiral, a circle, a cube or a cylinder—it is universal and fundamental. As the American science writer Sam Kean put it:

“Everywhere in the universe, the periodic table has the same basic structure. Even if an alien civilization’s table weren’t plotted out in the castle-with-turrets shape we humans favour, their spiral or pyramidal or whatever-shaped periodic table would naturally pause after 118 elements.”

That includes the world’s oldest surviving periodic table, which was discovered not so long ago in the chemistry department at the University of St Andrews, the table of light that is being projected as we speak—I hope—on to the University of Edinburgh’s David Hume tower, just up the road, or indeed the macramé interpretation of the periodic table that was displayed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh over the summer. That comprised over 200,000 knots, which represented the scarcity and vulnerability of the elements, as well as their properties. It was not quite chemistry through interpretative dance, but chemistry through crochet.

The periodic table is a great icon, a powerful tool and a symbol, not just of the structure of nature, but of our capacity to describe the universe in which we live. Yet if it is to be of more than historical interest, we must face serious challenges. High-quality education in chemistry and other science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, accessible to as many as possible, is vital to ensure that future generations can stand on the shoulders of the giants of Scottish chemistry such as Black and Ramsay and move the science on.

However, chemistry is precisely one of those subjects that is badly impacted by the squeeze on the number of subjects that pupils can take in the senior phase of school, a contraction that narrows the curriculum. It has also suffered from a shortage of teachers who are qualified and willing to teach the next generation of chemists. We cannot allow that to continue if we care about science.

Meanwhile, many of the rarest elements have become the most critical to our daily lives in devices such as mobile phones or electric cars. Natural sources of at least six of the elements in mobile phones are set to run out in 100 years or so, while 82 per cent of households are not even thinking about recycling old electronic devices such as phones. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of the world’s supply of cobalt, which is used in batteries, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where men, women, and children as young as six work and die in unspeakable conditions to mine it for 50p a day.

What a tragedy it would be if our generation failed to educate the successors to those pioneers of the periodic table, or instead of discovering the elements let some of them disappear from the earth, enslaving thousands on the way. For 150 years, the periodic table has been a force for good and an instrument of knowledge, powering human progress. Let us do what we have to, to make sure that it remains so for the next 150 years.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I do not know what my chemistry teacher would have said about me, but it probably would not be very flattering. In fact, Bert Seath, for it was he, whenever an experiment was taking place in the lab, used to leave the room, stand just outside the door and peer inside, so afraid was he of the potential results. That was entirely attributable to the students and not to any deficiencies in his teaching. Poor Bert had previously been blown up in an experiment and did not want to repeat that.

Iain Gray touched on an important point in relation to science. When we talk about subjects such as this, they do not stand alone from moral and social issues. Mr Gray was entirely right to talk about the conditions in countries such as Congo, which we depend on for much of our technology. Lithium, too, is extracted in appalling conditions yet electric cars depend on it and will continue to do so unless we change the technology.

The debate has been an excellent opportunity for my two interns, Claire Brigden and Anna Coleman, who this morning I asked to prepare some speaking notes. They have limited scientific knowledge so, as always, it was interesting to see how much they could discover in a short space of time.

I thank Iain Gray for providing the opportunity to discuss the periodic table. It is one of those visual things that sticks in people’s memory from their education. Even if the detail escapes them, the shape will stick with them. It is a rich tool for teaching and for remembering. To me as a mathematician—a very humble and poor one, I hasten to add—the periodic table is one of the great things in chemistry, because its symmetry and pattern mean that it lends itself to mathematicians in particular.

Like Iain Gray, my interns identified Sir William Ramsay and found that he is described as one of the greatest chemical discoverers of the time. I have always thought that it was a particularly notable achievement for someone, back in 1894, to discover a chemically inert gas, because how could it be detected when it does not interact with anything? My interns tell me that, when he named it argon, he did so because that is the Greek word for lazy, and as a gas it does not have any particularly notable chemical properties. Of course, having discovered one noble gas, he went on to discover another three, which was absolutely excellent.

That is an example of Scotland being a leader in scientific discovery. Of course, Iain Gray correctly identified that that did not come out of nowhere. It happened because we had a well-educated population who took an interest in philosophical and scientific matters. We are only about 500m away from the memorial to David Hume in the old Calton cemetery at the top of the hill next to the Scottish Government building. That celebrates one part of our achievement. At the end of George Street, we have a new statue to Maxwell. We celebrate our achievements.

However, we must have a new bank of highly skilled, STEM-literate employees, and they must be men and women. If we fail to engage the females of our race, we miss out on 50 per cent of the terrific intellect that is out there.

The periodic table gives us a universal language to talk about elements and molecules, and helps us to catalyse and synthesize scientific knowledge and excellence. Of course, it is used around the world and promotes joint progress, because we have a shared model, and collaboration will always be of value in science.

I very much welcome the opportunity to recognise the momentous contribution of the periodic table and acknowledge its continuing importance in scientific development and education.

I must say that, in the science wing of the school that I attended, my favourite thing was always the Van de Graaff generator, which we could use to charge ourselves up to 1 million volts, and then go and discharge on other people—to their great shock and alarm. However, I also remember the periodic table, which is immensely valuable to us and will be to others.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am not going to comment.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I thank Iain Gray for bringing the debate to the chamber and allowing me the luxury of being a complete nerd. I am so disappointed and surprised that the chamber has emptied just because we are speaking about the periodic table.

I remind the chamber that, a long, long time ago, I was an industrial chemist. I love that kind of chemistry, which is about how elements are formed and how we are all children of the stars. Every element that forms in the world around us, everything that we see and everything that has ever been, or will be, was formed at the centre of giant stars.

Clouds of hydrogen gas coalesce under the pressure of gravity until that ball of gas is so massive that it spontaneously bursts into life as a nuclear fusion reaction, burning hydrogen as fuel. As hydrogen is burned, helium is formed, giving off heat at more than 5,000°C. The star is now hot enough to fuse helium into carbon, and when that continued fusion produces iron, the star’s life ends. At that point, the chemical reaction that has been pushing out against gravity stops, and supergravity causes the star to implode.

That is called a supernova, and it will shine brighter than any galaxy for a short time. It is that explosion—that extreme gravity and heat—that fuses other elements together to form the heavier elements of the periodic table such as gold, lead and platinum, as well as all sorts of exotic elements. For those members who are wearing any kind of precious metals, is it not amazing to think that the trinkets that you are wearing began life at the centre of an exploding star?

The periodic table—also known as the periodic table of elements—is a tabular display of the chemical elements, which it arranges by atomic number, electron configuration, and recurring chemical properties. The structure of the table shows periodic trends. The seven rows of the table are called periods, with metals on the left and non-metals on the right. The columns are called groups and contain elements with similar chemical behaviours.

Column 1, for example, houses hydrogen and the alkali metals. Those alkali metals—elements such as lithium, sodium and potassium—are extremely reactive, because they have one electron in their outer valence shell, which has a relatively weak bond with its positively charged nucleus. I knew that you knew that, Presiding Officer. It is not difficult to excite that outer negatively charged electron to leave its host, and, when it does, it does so quite energetically.

I do not know whether members have ever had the opportunity to drop a piece of potassium into water, but it is absolutely worth a go. Sodium street lights basically just pass electricity through sodium, exciting the outer electron to leave its host and give off energy in the form of light. At the other end of the spectrum, the elements with valence shells that are almost full, such as fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine, do exactly the opposite, because they are trying to fill their almost full shells. Along comes a hydrogen atom with its one electron and—boom!—they cuddle up and form elements such as hydrogen chloride, which in its aqueous form is hydrochloric acid. That is an exothermic reaction—it gives off heat. If you ever want to impress your kids or grandkids, drop some bicarbonate of soda into some vinegar in a glass. It effervesces, and you can feel the heat.

Column 8 has the inert or halogen gases, with full valence shells, such as helium, neon, argon and krypton, which I hear is a personal favourite of Superman.

Today there are 118 known elements, most of which are found in nature. However, as Iain Gray has already said, some synthetic elements are built in the lab. On 30 December 2015, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced that it had officially recognised elements with the atomic numbers 115, 117 and 118. Of those, oganesson is the heaviest. Those elements are synthesised by slamming lighter nuclei into each other and tracking the decay of the superheavyweight elements that are subsequently produced. The new elements exist for only a fraction of a second, but that is sufficient for them to be given official recognition.

When Russian chemistry professor Dmitri Mendeleev first produced a version of the periodic table in 1869, he was clever enough to recognise that he must leave spaces for elements that were yet to be discovered. He was proved right. “So how many elements could there possibly be?”, I hear you cry, Presiding Officer. I am glad that you asked.

The Bohr model exhibits difficulty for atoms with atomic numbers greater than 137, as elements with those atomic numbers would require the outer valence electrons to travel faster than the speed of light, which, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, is impossible. However, it is now hypothesised that the outer electrons might not need to circumnavigate the nucleus but need merely to oscillate. That opens up a whole new series of possibilities.

Presiding Officer, I have not had the chance to talk about Ernest Rutherford’s work in splitting the atom or Henry Moseley’s work with X-ray spectroscopy. What I am saying is that chemistry and other STEM subjects are far from being dry and uninteresting. On the contrary, studying them opens up the universe. As Iain Gray’s motion says, let us invest in STEM subjects and ensure that Scotland’s young minds continue to be at the forefront of discovery.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Well, well, well. A whole new Brian Whittle has appeared before us. He was more animated than I have ever seen him before—and that is saying something.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

This will just be the same old Liam McArthur, Presiding Officer. I fear that, after that contribution, my speech will represent a handbrake turn.

I thank Iain Gray for securing this debate on an achievement that is among the most significant in science, and for introducing us to the concept of chemistry through crochet. Surely that craze will sweep the nation from here on in. I also thank the father of my colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton, David, for providing me with the wherewithal to contribute to this debate.

Iain Gray started by reflecting on what some of his former teaching colleagues might have thought of him bringing this debate to the Parliament. I can only hazard a guess that there would have been a state of mild shock among all the science staff in Kirkwall grammar school circa 1985 at the notion that I would participate in this debate.

Since Mendeleev ordered the first elements into his table 150 years ago, the periodic table has evolved into a resource that has furthered our understanding of the world around us probably more than even he could have imagined. For many of us, it was probably part of the wallpaper in science classrooms throughout the country. However, in reality, the periodic table serves as the underpinning of modern-day scientific research and offers clues about how our world might best function.

Let us consider something as simple as our everyday mobile phones. The smartphones that we rely on are home to 31 elements—do not ask me to name any of them off by heart. When we upgrade our phones, we effectively put those elements in our old phones to waste. Those phones either get stowed away in a drawer at home where the elements cannot be recovered, or they are handed in, and they often end up in third world countries where they are mined using strong acid to retrieve the elements.

Many of those elements are already fast running out, including small earth elements such as terbium. However, extraction can have damaging environmental impacts, including water, air and soil pollution. We should recognise that and ensure that the United Kingdom takes the lead in more ethical recycling in the interests of our environment and because of our continuing need for those naturally occurring, but finite, elements.

Lithium batteries are other everyday items that we would do well to appreciate more and waste less. As Stewart Stevenson reminded us, they are fundamental to electric vehicles and, as Scotland rightly sets ambitious targets for massively increasing electric car use, with Orkney leading the way, of course, the demand for lithium ion batteries is likely to grow exponentially. As well as lithium, they contain valuable materials such as cobalt, nickel and manganese. Although there is enough lithium for all the cars that we will need to manufacture, it needs to be recycled and, as of yet, we still do not have an efficient system for doing that. In addition, cobalt mainly comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is often mined, as Iain Gray described, in dreadful conditions and by children. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has not yet deemed cobalt ores as conflict minerals, but many argue that it should do so and it is hard to disagree with that.

Technology can undoubtedly help us meet the challenging climate change ambitions that we have set but, in turn, we need to ensure that we act sustainably and responsibly in the use of that technology and the elements that underpin it. In these days of fast-paced change, it is strangely reassuring to think that something that was created 150 years ago is still the template that helps to shape our present and, indeed, our future. It is therefore absolutely right that we take time to recognise the significance of the periodic table, the debt that we owe Dmitri Mendeleev and, to a slightly lesser extent, the debt that we owe Iain Gray for providing us an opportunity to put that gratitude on the record this evening. Again, I thank Iain Gray and look forward to the remainder of the debate.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I, too, congratulate lain Gray on securing time for this debate.

I have to confess that I did not know that this year had been designated by UNESCO as the international year of the periodic table. However, I am delighted that that is the case, because we have been treated to many fascinating speeches. Mine will be considerably more pedestrian, but I now have the names of colleagues who I think would be particularly useful in the pub quiz team.

When thinking about the debate this morning, I was instantly taken back to my school days and the science classroom, with the colourful periodic table emblazoned across the wall—I had to print off a copy of the periodic table just to remind myself of what I used to look at. I am not for a minute suggesting that my interest was more in the periodic table than in what my science teacher was trying to teach me, but I spent many an afternoon reciting and remembering as many elements as I could. I tried my best but could not remember them all, and certainly not in the right order.

I was clearly a rookie, but not so Tom Lehrer—I wondered who would be the first to mention him, so I am disappointed that my colleagues have not done so. Tom Lehrer is the American singer from the 1960s who used to recite the periodic table to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. Members will be pleased to hear that I am not proposing to do that tonight, but I invite members to watch his performance on YouTube. I think that chemistry students would find it a wonderful and amusing learning tool.

We could have a whole other debate about our favourite element in the periodic table—I am worried that Brian Whittle might take me up on that—but I will mention one briefly. Gold is almost immune to corrosion and is ductile, malleable and a conductor of electricity, and it does not get oxidised. It is a sign of wealth and beauty, and it has been central to lots of mythologies. The Incas referred to gold as the tears of the sun, while, in “The Odyssey”, Homer mentioned gold as the glory of the immortals. All I will say is that Christmas is coming, so we could do worse than shop for some Au—number 79 in the periodic table.

I turn to the more serious points that Iain Gray raised and consideration of the way in which we support STEM education. Fewer young people take chemistry in the senior phase of school. Indeed, there seems to be a narrowing of subject choice in STEM subjects because of changes to the curriculum. That has an impact right through the system, because if fewer candidates move from the broad general education phase to the senior phase, if fewer candidates progress into STEM degree programmes and if we do not have enough STEM teachers, we have a systemic problem. I know that the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee has called for an independent review of those challenges and I hope that the Government will urgently arrange such a review.

As well as agreeing that STEM subjects should be available and encouraged throughout the learning journey, I think that we can all agree that STEM subjects need to be taught early. Some time ago, I visited a wonderful science hub—a joint venture between West Dunbartonshire Council and the Glasgow Science Centre—at St Patrick’s primary school in Dumbarton. The partners have redesigned the learning space and made it fun, done some professional learning for teachers and encouraged the young people—pupils as young as primary 1—to be inquisitive. The children are so engaged—it is wonderful to see. As one put it, “It’s more exciting than the classroom.” Those young people are the scientists and innovators of the future. We need more of that in every primary school, and we need to support chemistry and other science subjects in every school across Scotland.

I congratulate the periodic table on its 150th anniversary and lain Gray on bringing this very interesting debate to the chamber.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I, too, welcome the debate to celebrate the international year of the periodic table. I thank Iain Gray for bringing the debate to the chamber and for the powerful points that he made in his opening speech. The debate gives us all an opportunity not just to talk about the periodic table but to highlight Scotland’s culture of science, discovery and invention.

Although I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on behalf of the Scottish Government, the timing of the debate means that we are absent from the science and the Parliament event that is taking place across the road at Dynamic Earth. The event celebrates the achievements of young people, particularly those who have won prizes for outstanding performance in higher and advanced higher STEM subjects. As Brian Whittle said, there are not a huge number of MSPs in the chamber, but I hope that that is because many MSPs are at the reception in Dynamic Earth. I was supposed to be speaking there now, but I am delighted to be here, as the subject is an important one to discuss in Parliament.

The annual event that is taking place across the road, which is organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, provides a good opportunity for the science sector to come together with MSPs to discuss the issues that it is facing. We should welcome the RSC’s work in the area and the leading role that it has taken in this year’s activities to mark 2019 as UNESCO’s international year of the periodic table. I particularly welcome the RSC’s work to highlight the issues around the sustainability of the key elements that Iain Gray, Liam McArthur and others mentioned, which are found in smartphones, laptops, tablets and the rechargeable batteries that those devices depend on. They are rare minerals and there are many international debates on their sustainability.

Jackie Baillie mentioned gold. We should also mention strontium—number 38 in the periodic table—because it has a particular connection with Scotland, being named after Strontian in Lochaber. It was near there in 1790 that Adair Crawford and William Cruikshank discovered the mineral strontianite, from which strontium was later isolated, so there is a direct Scottish connection with the periodic table.

Dmitri Mendeleev’s formulation of the periodic table back in 1869, which we are celebrating today, was a big story in the news just a few weeks ago, with a headline that said, “Periodic Table Found During Routine Cleaning at Scottish University May Be World’s Oldest”. The chart, which was believed to date back to 1885—only 16 years after Mendeleev put the periodic table together—was unearthed from a storage room in a chemistry building at the University of St Andrews.

I will touch on a number of the issues that members mentioned in the debate. First, if we are trying to inspire people to study chemistry and follow it as a career, it is important that we highlight the sector’s importance to the Scottish economy. We are proud of Scotland’s large, strong and successful chemical sector, which has an annual turnover of £3.1 billion and employs 11,000 people. It also has an impressive history of being one of the country’s largest manufacturing exporters, with an estimated value of approximately £5.46 billion in 2017. It accounts for 6.7 per cent of Scotland’s total exports. R and D expenditure on chemicals, chemical products and pharmaceuticals totalled £178.8 million in 2017, which was 14.3 per cent of the overall total for Scotland. That highlights the economic importance of the chemicals sector.

We should also remember that Scotland’s universities outperform those in the rest of the UK when it comes to world-leading and internationally excellent research in chemistry.

Importantly, if we are trying to attract young people into chemistry, we should get the message out to them that chemistry jobs in Scotland are high-quality jobs, with salaries averaging £47,000 a year.

Iain Gray, Jackie Baillie and other members spoke of the importance of ensuring that the right courses are available, that people are studying those courses and that we have the teacher numbers. It is not all doom and gloom: we currently have the second highest number of chemistry teachers in 10 years, which is good news.

Chemistry higher pass rates have been stable since 2016. Between 2014 and 2019, there was only a 0.8 per cent change in those rates, compared with a 4.5 per cent change for STEM subjects overall, so chemistry is quite stable. In 2017-18, there were 530 full-time equivalent entrants studying chemistry at first degree level in Scottish higher education institutions. On Stewart Stevenson’s point about the gender split in relation to those studying chemistry, it is important to note that there was a pretty even split between male and female university entrants, so the gender balance seems to be improving.

As well as encouraging people to study chemistry, we are trying to encourage more people to become chemistry teachers. We approved 107 STEM career change bursaries in 2018-19, against our target of 100. We are offering more of those bursaries this year to attract more people into teaching STEM subjects, including chemistry, in our schools.

A third more full-time equivalent students are on engineering, science and maths courses in colleges than was the case in 2006-07.

Finally, 41 per cent of all modern apprenticeship starts in 2018-19 were in STEM frameworks.

With regard to the STEM strategy, I take on board the importance of attracting both genders to the study of STEM subjects at school, college or university, and to taking on apprenticeships in that area.

The issues raised in the debate are important and, as part of our five-year strategy, we will take them on board, alongside issues that were highlighted in the Education and Skills Committee’s recent report on STEM.

We have more opportunities in the future to celebrate STEM subjects, including chemistry. It is really important that we take advantage of the 26th conference of the parties, or COP26, which will take place in Glasgow next year. There will be 30,000 delegates at that important climate change event, including hundreds of political and state leaders from around the world, so we must use that platform to promote Scotland’s science sector, STEM subjects and our amazing science heritage.

Our rich history of discovery and invention, coupled with our track record of research excellence, continues to play a major part in Scotland being recognised as a science nation. In the coming days, we will have another opportunity to debate that in Parliament.

I thank Iain Gray for giving us another opportunity to celebrate all that by securing today’s debate.

Meeting closed at 18:13.