Vol 3 No 2 Suppl. 5 (2019)
Special Issue Article

The Periodic Table and its Iconicity: an Essay

Juergen Heinrich Maar
Retired, Chemistry Department, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil
Alexander Maar
Department of Philosophy, State University of Londrina, Paraná, Brazil

Published 2019-12-16


  • Dmitri Mendeleev,
  • the periodic table of elements,
  • philosophy of chemistry,
  • science and pop art,
  • science fiction

How to Cite

Maar, J. H., & Maar, A. (2019). The Periodic Table and its Iconicity: an Essay. Substantia, 3(2), 29–48. https://doi.org/10.13128/Substantia-582


In this essay, we aim to provide an overview of the periodic table’s origins and history, and of the elements which conspired to make it chemistry’s most recognisable icon. We pay attention to Mendeleev’s role in the development of a system for organising the elements and chemical knowledge while facilitating the teaching of chemistry. We look at how the reception of the table in different chemical communities was dependent on the local scientific, cultural and political context, but argue that its eventual universal acceptance is due to its unique ability to accommodate possessed knowledge while enabling novel predictions. Furthermore, we argue that its capacity to unify apparently disconnected phenomena under a simple framework facilitates our understanding of periodicity, making the table an icon of aesthetic value, and an object of philosophical inquiry. Finally, we briefly explore the table’s iconicity throughout its representations in pop art and science fiction.