In the wee hours of the late 17th century, Isaac Newton could be found locked up in his laboratory prodding the secrets of nature. Giant plumes of green smoke poured from cauldrons of all shapes and sizes, while others hissed and spat new and mysterious chemical concoctions, like miniature volcanoes erupting with knowledge from the unknown. Under the eerie glow of twinkling candle light, Newton would go on to write over a million words on the subject of alchemy. He had to do so in secret because the practice was frowned upon at that time. In fact, it is now known that alchemy was the ‘science’ in which he was chiefly interested in. His fascination with turning lead into gold via the elusive philosopher’s stone is now evident. He had even turned down a professorship at Cambridge and instead opted for England’s Director of Mint, where he oversaw his nation’s gold repository.
Not much was known about the fundamental structure of matter in Newton’s time. The first version of the periodic table would not come along for more than a hundred and forty years after his death. With the modern atomic structure not surfacing for another 30 years after that. Today, we know that we can’t turn lead into gold without setting the world on fire. Alchemy is recognized as a pseudoscience, and we opt for modern chemistry to describe the interactions between the elements. Everyone walking out of high school knows what atoms and the periodic table are. They know what the sub-atomic particles and their associated electric charges are. In this article, we’re going to push beyond the basics. We’re going to look at atomic structure from a quantum mechanical view, which will give you a new understanding of why the periodic table looks the way it does. In fact, you can construct the entire periodic table using nothing but the quantum numbers.