Mendeleyev’s Dream

The originally published periodic table

Mendeleyev’’s Dream by Paul Strathern is in paperback by Penguin. The book provides an easily read history of chemistry from Thales to Mayer/Mendeleyev, with some detail on Bruno, Paracelsus and the alchemists. Included in the last chapter is the periodic table as published by Mendeleyev – complete with suggestions that the weights and densities of some elements needed to be redetermined as they did not fit with the pattern!

Strathern cites the need for Galileo and the early physicists to make the distinction between primary and secondary qualities as being important in the development of Chemistry – the subject deals with colours, smells and tastes (tasting being an important mode of analysis until well into the seventeenth century!) and was marginalised in the age of Descartes and Newton.

The role played by accurate measurement of properties (my mathematical tie in) is emphasised in the account of Lavoisier, and Mendeleyev himself falls asleep on a deck of blank cards inscribed with the properties of the chemical elements known at the time – the card game patience gave Mendeleyev his insight apparently. Meneleyev’’s insistance on his pattern and demands for redeterminations of some of the physical properties, together with the audacious move of leaving blanks in the table for as yet undiscovered elements is contrasted with Meyer’’s more tentative approach.

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