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20 November 2019

S5M-18139 International Year of the Periodic Table

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): 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.

17:38
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17:45

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

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.

17:51

Stewart Stevenson
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