The Music of Chemistry

Newlands Octaves - a few 'dodgy notes' included

Newlands Octaves

Three fascinations have filled my life : Science, Business and Music. Creativity is the art and discipline of noticing connections between things and this prompted me to write a blog about the connections between music and chemistry.

It was Döbereiner that first noticed the idea of patterns of the elements and, in 1828, he proposed the notion that the elements could be classified into triads, based on their properties. It took 30 more years for French geologist de Chancourtois’ to develop the idea.  de Chancourtois’ organised the elements by their atomic weights and published his work in 1863. It’s most interesting to note that his ideas were largely ignored by the scientific community as he used geological terms to describe his insight.

Lesson for Innovators:  Work in the language of your target audience!

In 1865, John Newland came up with his theory of octaves for the elements, organising the elements into groups of 8 and using music as a means of explaining his theories to the Chemical Society in 1866, who refused to publish his work, suggesting that it was frivolous.

Lesson for Innovators:  Persist with your metaphors!

There were some flaws in Newland’s theory as some elements did not quite ‘fit’ the law of octaves. It took a few more years before Mendeleev produced the essential breakthrough of what we now consider the basis of the modern periodic table. So confident was Mendeleev of his theory that he left spaces in the table for elements that had yet to be invented.

Mendeleev's periodic table from 1871

Mendeleev’s periodic table from 1871

Lesson for Innovators:  Ensure your theories explain gaps in current knowledge!

These stories illustrates the powerful forces that can operate to prevent a new idea or concept from coming into being.  It points to the need for inventors and innovators to understand and navigate such barriers if breakthrough ideas are to come into being. They are also great examples of pattern spotting as a creative act, as per our article about using mazes and puzzles to solve complex business problems. You will find a few more references to popular science in the business book “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll”:

Business mixed with music and a wink towards my science background

Business mixed with music and a wink towards my science background

Finally, a song that uses chemistry as the basis of its lyric. It’s the song “Bunsen Burner” by “Punk Idol and Two Hit Wonder” John Otway. I sponsored John’s round the world tour a few years back, losing my shirt on the enterprise. The tour was a massive failure in a comedy of errors on a par with “This is Spinal Tap” – It was a brilliant example of a superb idea which did not turn into innovation due to poor execution of the idea. I had been seduced into supporting John’s tour after helping him reach the Top 10 in the charts with Bunsen Burner – a song that John originally wrote to help his daughter pass her Chemistry O Levels.

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About the Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

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4 responses to “The Music of Chemistry

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