Little people contributing to big discoveries

Dr Eric Scerri delivering his lecture at the University of Malta. Photo: Abigail Galea

Dr Eric Scerri delivering his lecture at the University of Malta. Photo: Abigail Galea

When thinking about the 20th century, what scientists come to your mind? Einstein, Newton, Darwin? These scientific ‘greats’ are not the only ones responsible for scientific breakthroughs. A decent amount of progress has happened due to the unsung heroes of science. “They show us that science is not just about these geniuses with outstanding individual abilities,” said Dr Eric Scerri, an expert on the history and philosophy of chemistry.

Having Maltese ancestors and wanting to go back to his roots, Scerri just recently held a guest lecture at the University of Malta about the history and significance of the periodic table.

Dimitri Mendeleev is a Russian scientist who established the periodic table. His contribution was to arrange the elements using their atomic weight and, contrary to other scientists, he dared to leave spaces for elements that hadn’t been found. Therefore, he managed to predict the properties of elements that were discovered years or decades later. However, his estimates were only correct in approximately 50 per cent of cases. “That’s about the success rate an astrologist has – sometimes he is right, sometimes wrong,” added Scerri.

Others contributed to the periodic table. In total, six people individually discovered it, and Scerri likes to call such phenomena a ‘living organism’. “I like to look at science as a bee hive, each individual contributing to the better of the whole.” The ones with the gift of the gab and a bit of luck tend to stick out, but many other scientists are performing a significant contribution in order to further push knowledge.

For Scerri, recognising the work of little-known scientists that have had a great influence on the discoveries of the 20th century is critical. “The little people stumble around just like the giants do, and as a result of all the serendipity, and failed attempts, somehow it all conspires together to give us what we call science.”

Dr Eric Scerri is an author, chemist and a leading philosopher of science. For more information see:

Sound Bites

• If global warming surpasses 1.5­­-2°C, Africa’s dry Sahel region might experience heavy seasonal rainfall by the end of the century. Researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research analysed several computer simulations that show a ‘Monsoon dynamic’ whereby a higher ocean surface temperature leads to more water evaporating and drifting into the continent as moist wind.

• Climate change has the potential to upset the deli­cate interaction between bees and plant species. Many bees depend on the availability of pollen from specific plants, which might not have flowered as the bees hatch too early in spring. Without food, some bees do not survive while the others display reduced activity and reproduction.

For more science news, listen to Radio Mocha on Radju Malta 2 every Monday at 1 pm and every Friday at 6pm.

Did you know?

• Hydrogen and helium, produced in the Big Bang, are by far the most abundant elements in the universe, making up 98 per cent of its total mass.

• It was long thought that argon, the third noble gas, does not form compounds with other elements. However, scientists discovered in 2000 that it combines with hydrogen fluoride at temperatures below -256°C.

• Most of the Earth’s crust is made of silicate rocks, and most of modern technology depends on silicon as well due to its use in semiconductor electronics.

• Vanadium is a key ingredient in newly developed flow batteries, which could one day store vast amounts of energy from solar power plants.

For more trivia see:


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