The women behind the periodic system

UNESCO declared 2019 as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT). As we approach the end of 2019, Brigitte Van Tiggelen speaks on Technoculture podcast again to discuss the role of women in the making of the periodic system as we know it today.

Brigitte Van Tiggelen is a historian of science with a special interest in the presence of women in science. She is also Director of the European operations at the Science History Institute.

Technoculture-on-EuroScientist #3 Brigitte Van Tiggelen

UNESCO’s International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT) is coming to an end (2019) and I had the pleasure to sit down with Brigitte Van Tiggelen for an update interview. Brigitte is a historian of science with a special interest in the presence of women in science, and she is the Director of the European operations at the Science History Institute (

Highlights from this episode

Brigitte explains the difference between the periodic table and the periodic system. (At minute 1:49)

Mendeleev was not the only one working on the periodic system.
(At minute 4:27)
Brigitte also mentions:
– John Alexander Reina Newlands
– William Odling
– Alexandre-Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois
– Gustav Detlef Hinrichs
– Julius Lothar Meyer

Brigitte talks about the role of women in the building of the periodic system. (At minute 8:32)

The history of how the periodic system came to be is like the periodic table itself: it has gaps! Brigitte and co-editor Annette Lykknes tried to fill the gaps with their volume “Women in their element.” (At minute 10:42)

Matthew effect (Margaret Rossiter). (At minute 18:05)

Matilda effect (Margaret Rossiter). (At minute 18:19)

The case of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and how she got credit for her work. (At minute 18:40)

What is the most recent biogaphy in Brigitte’s edited book? “Some women are still alive” she says. Because the periodic table is a work in progress. (At minute 21:33)

For more highlights, please check the description box of the YouTube video.

The hero myth and the rhetoric of science

In this episode, Brigitte expands on the topic of “icons in science”; iconic scientists of the modern times. We look up to them, we don’t dare dream to be like them, because they were geniuses, like super humans, everything came easy to them… but did it? Were they “geniuses?” Were they lonely geniuses? What does it mean?

“While heroic stories try to convey the human side of science, they actually miss the point.” How? They pin down to one person discoveries and achievements that were made possible by teams of people over a period of time. Science is a process in which every person counts. The hero story gives the false impression that all is done by one person, and everyone else is “interchangeable”, which is actually de-humanising.

Technoculture #30 Brigitte Van Tiggelen (The hero myth and the rhetoric of science)

We need narratives about science, but we need to be careful with their implications. How do the process of science really work, and what is the role of peopl…

Original Podcast

External Resources

The episode was originally published on this page, where you can find a summary of contents, selected quotes, and more.

Together with her colleague Annette Lykknes, professor of chemistry education and a historian of chemistry at NTNU in Trondheim (Norway), Brigitte has edited a book that talks about “women behind the periodic table.”
The book was published in August 2019 and the title is Women in Their Element. Selected Women’s Contributions to the Periodic System” 

Go back to Technoculture Podcast Introductory article

Featured image credit: Federica Bressan

Federica Bressan

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