Published on Thursday, May 22, 2008 in , ,

Click to go to Pratt's Periodic TableThere was a time when anyone you met on the street could name all the elements from memory. Of course, that was also when there were only four elements: Fire, Air, Earth, Water. The modern chemical elements are more numerous, but they can still be memorized.

Before we get into the elements themselves, however, we need to start with something more basic. What is it with the periodic table and that weird shape?!? Fortunately, Chem4Kids provides an excellent basic introduction to the periodic table here. If you're curious all about chemistry basics, or just forgotten about what you learned in school, there's a great and simple multi-page tour on the site, too. Memorizing is good, but memorizing along with understanding is always more effective.

The two standard ways that have been used to memorize the chemical elements. Obviously, you could use standard memory techniques, and customize them as described in the periodic table section of the Memory Page. A more detailed version of this approach can be found on this archived copy of SoundNumbers.com's Periodic Table page . This latter page includes mnemonics for the elements as an ordered list, by number, and even each elements' atomic weight!

Another classic way to learn the elements has been to memorize Tom Lehrer's The Elements Song (Flash required). Even though it was written in 1959, the video is helpful and lists elements discovered after that time.

However, there have been improvements in learning the elements since these approaches were first used. The same people who brought you the 50 States of Mind website I mentioned in my previous post have also developed a mnemonic version of the periodic table they call The Atom Families. On their Big Table, they replace the standard symbols with pictures for every element for which they've developed a pictorial mnemonic. On their Iron page, for example, they've got an iron robot (Rosie from The Jetsons) who is ironing, and it is mentioned you should picture her as being made of Ferris Wheel parts, to help you remember the Fe symbol (iron, in Latin, is ferrum).

Unfortunately, the previous table is incomplete, and will only help you remember the elements and their symbols. Fortunately, there's been a complete mnemonic periodic table on the web since 1997 (keep in mind that the site design is also from 1997)! John Pratt's Periodic Table Memory Pegs are complete, and each mnemonic will help you remember the element's name, its chemical symbol, and its number on the table! You can click on an individual picture in the table to go straight its description and explanation, or you can learn the mnemonics 20 at a time by stepping through the pages (this is an excellent way to break it down when you're just learning it!). If you do get this version down and want to add the atomic weights, it wouldn't be tough (with a little imagination) to use the atomic weight mnemonics from SoundNumbers.com.

What's the use of memorizing the elements if you're never going to use them? You can simultaneously use and practice them by quizzing yourself! In my How Many Xs Can You Name In Y Minutes? post, there are (at this writing) two timed quizzes focusing on the elements (in the Science section), one at Kongregate, and the other at Sporcle. There's also a third quiz, if you count Mental Floss' Noble Gases quiz.

Speaking of fun with the elements, here's a page featuring the age-old game of spelling words with just the elemental symbols. You can challenge your friends to do things like create the longest word they can with this limitation (Can you beat helicopters?). Of course, if you get tired of trying to figure out whether a particular word can be made this way, you can cheat like heck using this periodic search engine. Using that search engine, here's how my earlier helicopters example breaks down into elemental symbols.

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