“LA république n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes.”

Nothing comes of nothing. Where the story of the periodic table of the elements really starts is debatable. But Lavoisier’s laboratory is as good a place as any to begin, for it was Lavoisier who published the first putatively comprehensive list of chemical elements—substances incapable of being broken down by chemical reactions into other substances—and it was Lavoisier and his wife Marie-Anne who pioneered the technique of measuring quantitatively what went into and came out of a chemical reaction, as a way of getting to the heart of what such a reaction really is. Get our daily newsletter

Lavoisier’s list of elements, published in 1789, five years before his execution, had 33 entries. Of those, 23—a fifth of the total now recognised—have stood the test of time. Some, like gold, iron and sulphur, had been known since ancient days. Others, like manganese, molybdenum and tungsten, were recent discoveries. What the list did not have was a structure. It was, avant la lettre, a stamp collection. But the album was missing.

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