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MENDELEYEV’S DREAM by Paul Strathern


The Quest for the Elements

By Paul Strathern

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-312-26204-3
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

A nimble chronological history of the transformation of sorcery and superstition into chemistry.

Strathern (Foucault in 90 Minutes, 2000, etc.) does not focus on a single figure (despite his title), but instead addresses the fluidity of ideas over spans of time and space, demonstrating how the systemic ordering of the elements (a breakthrough in understanding akin to gravity) was ultimately grasped. He weaves his story from historical strands, commencing with the beginnings of scientific thought and the “pre-science” of alchemy (popular for centuries despite censure). Simultaneously, he presents his narrative as inseparable from the volatile personalities of great scientists, beginning with Paracelsus—a swashbuckling 16th-century itinerant who, in synthesizing secret arts like alchemy and midwifery, may have been the first “emergent chemist.” The author demonstrates a keen eye for detail and a great affection for his subjects; these portraits are humorous and dramatic rather than dry. This is epitomized by the story of Giordano Bruno, who invented a revolutionary memory system only to be burned at the stake in 1600 under orders of Pope Clement VIII. The Inquisition aside, Strathern perceives a real jump forward in scientific development during the 17th century, sparked by such disparate achievements as Galileo’s perfection of the telescope, the reason-based philosophy of Descartes, and Francis Bacon’s “science of thought and practice” (which was primary in asserting the potentially enormous benefits of such experimentation for humankind). Finally, the author sees in the gnome-like, isolated figure of Mendeleyev a template both for the eternally lonesome scientific quest and for the structuring of chemical understanding (upon which biological understanding is predicated). He concludes by depicting Mendeleyev’s innovations in understanding and his 1869 “dream,” in which “ ‘the elements fell into place as required’ . . . the elements were listed in order of their atomic weights, their properties repeated in a series of periodic intervals.”

Crisp, provocative entertainment for armchair scientists, and a solid survey for more serious readers.