My daughter can recite the whole periodic table: is she prodigious?

By Dr. Harish Subedi

My daughter Riju says she loves chemistry and the periodic table. I got a copy of a colorful Periodic table from a Chemistry conference last August and put on the wall in her bedroom as she liked the colors and pictures on it. One day in early January this year, Riju copied the names, symbols and atomic numbers of first few elements on a piece of paper ‘for fun’. Later on the same day, we were surprised to see her memorizing the names and atomic numbers of a bunch of elements. I never expected that my daughter, a kindergartner at that time, would have that much of interest in chemistry. She was never introduced "any" chemistry concepts before.

After a few days, I decided to record a video on Riju talking about chemistry. She memorized the first 20 elements of the periodic table at that time. I posted the video on YouTube and shared among friends and family via Facebook. That was cool. Obviously I was so happy and so was her mom. In the video, she counted the elements with correct order of atomic numbers, symbols, and their applications/uses.


She kept learning more elements and asked me to record the video again when she was ready with more than 100 elements and got her favorite Periodic Table T–shirt. At that time, after a few months of the first video, the same girl recited all 118 elements in correct order of atomic number and symbol. In the later part of the video, as you can see, she took some time to give the correct answer but, interestingly, did not give the incorrect answer. It was so amazing to see my own daughter reciting so many elements that I never could memorize.


It felt like she was following a certain pattern and ‘looking for pictures’ in her mind to match the atomic number to its name and symbol. I was quite surprised to see this because the high school chemistry students usually have to memorize the atomic numbers and symbols of only first twenty or thirty elements. In most of the cases, a copy of Periodic table is provided in every single test, quiz, or assignment.

I wanted to get a deeper understanding on how the brains of children with exceptional abilities, known as prodigies, work and did a quick Google search. I ended up getting great examples of child prodigies in various fields. Few years ago, Arden Hayes, then 5–year–old boy, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and amazed the audience with his knowledge on the facts about all countries around the world. He is also an expert on names and facts about all US presidents. Similarly, a cute three-year-old girl Brielle astonished the audience in the Ellen Show by reciting the Periodic table. She is also a “human anatomy expert”. There are many other examples of child prodigies. Tiger Woods, an American professional golfer and one of the highest–paid athletes in the world, started playing golf at the age of two, Samuel Reshevsky, a Polish chess prodigy, gave simultaneous exhibitions at the age of eight, Wolfgang Mozart started composing music and performing in venues at the age of five, and Shakuntala Devi, popularly known as “human computer”, could calculate cube roots using mental math at the age of five.

Macmillan Dictionary defines child prodigy as “a child who is extremely skillful at something that usually only adults can do”. Whether the inherent ability (nature) or extreme training (nurture) is responsible for making a child “a child prodigy” has been a subject of debate. Some psychologists, including late Michael Howe, think that it is not that difficult to produce child prodigies given that the children get the right environment. Examples of Wolfgang Mozart and Tiger Woods could possibly justify this argument as both were introduced to their fields (music and golf, respectively) at their very early ages. On the other end of the spectrum, some researchers including Joanne Ruthsatz and her colleagues attribute the prodigious abilities to “exceptional working memory” and “attention to detail”. Analogous to the central processing unit of a computer, working memory is a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing. A study conducted by Ruthsatz and colleagues showed that all the participating prodigies had incredibly high working memory scores (at or above 99th percentile). In addition, according to the psychologist Jonathan Wai, “Experts are born, then made” meaning the prodigies are not simply the products of their environments and what predominantly matters is their exceptional inborn cognitive abilities. It is too early to say what my daughter's future would look like but at present she is doing quite well.

Dr. Subedi is a chemistry faculty at Western Nebraska Community College, Scottsbluff, NE, USA.

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