At one point, while drowning in research for The Disappearing Spoon, I could pretty much name every element on the periodic table, in order. I was more than happy to let this "talent" lapse, however—it's not exactly the coolest thing to blurt out at a cocktail party. And it certainly never crossed my mind that I might parlay the skill into something more.
But Meenakshi Agrawal, an economics teacher in India, had grander ambitions than me. Agrawal set an unofficial world record in April by writing out all 118 element symbols (228 characters total) on a blank periodic table in 91.65 seconds. That's almost exactly 2.5 characters per second. At first I was a little stunned—partly at the speed, partly that someone bothered doing this. Over the next few days, however, I began wondering how Agrawal's feat matched up to other displays of linguistic speed.
Champion crossword puzzlers can ink in a 15-by-15 grid (225 spaces for characters, minus 30 or so black spots) in roughly the same time as Agrawal, and without knowing what to write beforehand. The New York Times reported back in 1919 that Nathan Behrin, a court reporter who wrote in shorthand, could transcribe a whopping 324 words per minute. A Chicago woman named Stella Pajunus typed 216 full words in one minute in the 1940s, and the fastest texter in the west dashed off a 160-character, 25-word message in 25.94 seconds in 2011. (N.B.: For world-record competitions, contestants always text the same message: "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.")
For a chemistry-related comparison, Tom Lehrer, in his classic ditty, "The Elements Song," managed to sing the names of every element on the periodic table (767 characters total) in 65 seconds. True, just 102 elements existed back when he wrote the song, up to nobelium. But that 65 seconds included some vamping on the piano, so he probably could have squeezed more in.
None of these comparisons is perfect. Weighed against the typing and shorthand records, Agrawal had a tougher task, since she was stringing together unrelated, nonsyntactical symbols; on the other hand, she could also memorize what to write beforehand. Still, based on what humans seem capable of, I'd guess that we'll look back on 91.65 seconds someday the way we look back at baseball's pre-Babe Ruth home run records—a mark just asking to be annihilated. (Not that Agrawal would probably mind: She's an educator, and in an interview she encouraged children to challenge her time—to trick them into studying the table.)
Beyond speed-writing, there are plenty of other games to play with the periodic table. Can you spell your name out using element symbols? (I can't, to my disappointment; my girlfriend can—two different ways—and barely cares.) You can also try building the longest word with element symbols. (InCArCeRaTiONS is the best I have, though, like Agrawal, I'd love to be beaten.)
If you like open-ended tasks, try dreaming up handles for the six unnamed elements on the table, numbers 113 to 118. A reader actually asked me to suggest an element name recently, and my answer was so lame (newtonium) that I'm going to steal hers: quixotium, symbol Qx. The symbol would not only add Q to the table (one of the two missing English letters, along with J); it also captures the nature of creating new elements nowadays, since scientists spend decades making atoms that survive for small fractions of a second.
But for my money, the all-time greatest wordplay related to the periodic table is this "doubly true" anagram, which won Mike Keith the special category prize in May 1999 at Anagrammy.com. The initial anagram equates thirty elements on the periodic table with 30 other elements:
hydrogen + zirconium + tin + oxygen + rhenium + platinum + tellurium + terbium + nobelium + chromium + iron + cobalt + carbon + aluminum + ruthenium + silicon + ytterbium + hafnium + sodium + selenium + cerium + manganese + osmium + uranium + nickel + praseodymium + erbium + vanadium + thallium + plutonium
nitrogen + zinc + rhodium + helium + argon + neptunium + beryllium + bromine + lutetium + boron + calcium + thorium + niobium + lanthanum + mercury + fluorine + bismuth + actinium + silver + cesium + neodymium + magnesium + xenon + samarium + scandium + europium + berkelium + palladium + antimony + thulium
That's more than half the periodic table—pretty amazing, especially since he used the elements with Xs and Zs. The kicker is that if you replace each element with its number on the periodic table, the anagram still balances:
1 + 40 + 50 + 8 + 75 + 78 + 52 + 65 + 102 + 24 + 26 + 27 + 6 + 13 + 44 + 14 + 70 + 72 + 11 + 34 + 58 + 25 + 76 + 92 + 28 + 59 + 68 + 23 + 81 + 94
7 + 30 + 45 + 2 + 18 + 93 + 4 + 35 + 71 + 5 + 20 + 90 + 41 + 57 + 80 + 9 + 83 + 89 + 47 + 55 + 60 + 12 + 54 + 62 + 21 + 63 + 97 + 46 + 51 + 69
It's hard to think there's not something cosmically special going on there.
If Agrawal's speed record falls, she can always try to top this, maybe even devise an anagram with all 118 elements. Or she can try to beat the record for the fastest time reciting the table while standing on your head (1 minute 16 seconds), or perhaps adjudicate the debate over the world record for most element symbols crammed into a tweet (77 or 82). If nothing else, if she can play the piano, I know a certain song that could use an update.