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Learning Objectives

Explain how elements are organized into the periodic table. Describe how some characteristics of elements relate to their positions on the periodic table.

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In the 19th century, many previously unknown elements were discovered, and scientists noted that certain sets of elements had similar bsci-ch.orgical properties. For example, chlorine, bromine, and iodine react with other elements (such as sodium) to make similar compounds. Likewise, lithium, sodium, and potassium react with other elements (such as oxygen) to make similar compounds. Why is this so?

In 1864, Julius Lothar Meyer, a German bsci-ch.orgist, organized the elements by atomic mass and grouped them according to their bsci-ch.orgical properties. Later that decade, Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian bsci-ch.orgist, organized all the known elements according to similar properties. He left gaps in his table for what he thought were undiscovered elements, and he made some bold predictions regarding the properties of those undiscovered elements. When elements were later discovered whose properties closely matched Mendeleev’s predictions, his version of the table gained favor in the scientific community. Because certain properties of the elements repeat on a regular basis throughout the table (that is, they are periodic), it became known as the periodic table.

Mendeleev had to list some elements out of the order of their atomic masses to group them with other elements that had similar properties.

The periodic table is one of the cornerstones of bsci-ch.orgistry because it organizes all of the known elements on the basis of their bsci-ch.orgical properties. A modern version is shown in Figure (PageIndex1). Most periodic tables provide additional data (such as atomic mass) in a box that contains each element’s symbol. The elements are listed in order of atomic number.

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Figure (PageIndex1): A Modern Periodic Table. A modern periodic table lists elements left to right by atomic number. An interactivePeriodic table can befound here. (Public Domain; Pubbsci-ch.org via NIH)

Features of the Periodic Table

Elements that have similar bsci-ch.orgical properties are grouped in columns called groups (or families). As well as being numbered, some of these groups have names—for example, alkali metals (the first column of elements), alkaline earth metals (the second column of elements), halogens (the next-to-last column of elements), and noble gases (the last column of elements).

The word halogen comes from the Greek for “salt maker” because these elements combine with other elements to form a group of compounds called salts.


To Your Health: Radon

Radon is an invisible, odorless noble gas that is slowly released from the ground, particularly from rocks and soils whose uranium content is high. Because it is a noble gas, radon is not bsci-ch.orgically reactive. Unfortunately, it is radioactive, and increased exposure to it has been correlated with an increased lung cancer risk.

Because radon comes from the ground, we cannot avoid it entirely. Moreover, because it is denser than air, radon tends to accumulate in basements, which if improperly ventilated can be hazardous to a building’s inhabitants. Fortunately, specialized ventilation minimizes the amount of radon that might collect. Special fan-and-vent systems are available that draw air from below the basement floor, before it can enter the living space, and vent it above the roof of a house.

After smoking, radon is thought to be the second-biggest preventable cause of lung cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that 10% of all lung cancers are related to radon exposure. There is uncertainty regarding what levels of exposure cause cancer, as well as what the exact causal agent might be (either radon or one of its breakdown products, many of which are also radioactive and, unlike radon, not gases). The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends testing every floor below the third floor for radon levels to guard against long-term health effects.


Each row of elements on the periodic table is called a period. Periods have different lengths; the first period has only 2 elements (hydrogen and helium), while the second and third periods have 8 elements each. The fourth and fifth periods have 18 elements each, and later periods are so long that a segment from each is removed and placed beneath the main body of the table.

Certain elemental properties become apparent in a survey of the periodic table as a whole. Every element can be classified as either a metal, a nonmetal, or a metalloid (or semi metal), as shown in Figure (PageIndex2). A metal is a substance that is shiny, typically (but not always) silvery in color, and an excellent conductor of electricity and heat. Metals are also malleable (they can be beaten into thin sheets) and ductile (they can be drawn into thin wires). A nonmetal is typically dull and a poor conductor of electricity and heat. Solid nonmetals are also very brittle. As shown in Figure (PageIndex2), metals occupy the left three-fourths of the periodic table, while nonmetals (except for hydrogen) are clustered in the upper right-hand corner of the periodic table. The elements with properties intermediate between those of metals and nonmetals are called metalloids (or semi-metals). Elements adjacent to the bold line in the right-hand portion of the periodic table have semimetal properties.

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api/deki/files/28863/2.9.jpg?revision=1&size=bestfit&width=609&height=346" />Figure (PageIndex3): Special Names for Sections of the Periodic Table. (CC BY-NC-SA; Anonymous by request)




Group 17: The Halogens

The halogens are fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine. The name halogen is derived from the Greek words for “salt forming,” which reflects that all of the halogens react readily with metals to form compounds, such as sodium chloride and calcium chloride (used in some areas as road salt).

Compounds that contain the fluoride ion are added to toothpaste and the water supply to prevent dental cavities. Fluorine is also found in Teflon coatings on kitchen utensils. Although chlorofluorocarbon propellants and refrigerants are believed to lead to the depletion of Earth’s ozone layer and contain both fluorine and chlorine, the latter is responsible for the adverse effect on the ozone layer. Bromine and iodine are less abundant than chlorine, and astatine is so radioactive that it exists in only negligible amounts in nature.

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Group 18: The Noble Gases

The noble gases are helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. Because the noble gases are composed of only single atoms, they are called monatomic. At room temperature and pressure, they are unreactive gases. Because of their lack of reactivity, for many years they were called inert gases or rare gases. However, the first bsci-ch.orgical compounds containing the noble gases were prepared in 1962. Although the noble gases are relatively minor constituents of the atmosphere, natural gas contains substantial amounts of helium. Because of its low reactivity, argon is often used as an unreactive (inert) atmosphere for welding and in light bulbs. The red light emitted by neon in a gas discharge tube is used in neon lights.