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Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements Paperback – 31 May 2001


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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (31 May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140284141
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140284140
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 472,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

On a wintry February day in 1869 the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev fell asleep at his desk after a marathon game of patience. When he woke, he looked at the delicately logical arrangement of the cards and saw the solution to a problem that had been vexing him for years: how to tabulate all the known different chemicals in a rational, coherent and meaningful way.

But how did he get there, intellectually? Was he just a dwarf standing on the shoulder of giants? Or uniquely gifted? On the basis of the facts and anecdotes Strathern skilfully weaves together here, the whole historical drama of chemical science, from the Four Elements of the Greeks, through the gold-hunting alchemy of the Arabs, to the near-misses (Phlogiston) of the Enlightenment, had been a kind of narrative prologue, building up to that seminal February day in Moscow and Mendeleyev's discovery of the Periodic Table.

Strathern's style is polished, lucid and easy-going. It is also extremely well matched to the fascinating story adduced in this absorbing and enlightening book.--Sean Thomas --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Paul Strathern studied physics, chemistry and maths at Trinity College, Dublin, before switching to philosophy. He is author of several novels, including A Season in Abyssinia, which won the Somerset Maugham prize, and two successful series - Philosophy in 90 Minutes and The Big Idea: Scientists Who Changed the World.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on 16 Jun 2000
Format: Hardcover
The title is slightly misleading, as the book is mostly about alchemy, philosophers and other discoverers of elements and chemical principles. But what a super book - it begins and ends with Mendeleyev, yet in between we are treated to a complete history of the groundwork that went into the discovery and classification of the elements. We meet many famous names, some not-so-famous and a few unsung tyros, along with their discoveries and what led up to them. Many of the discoveries were accidental, others through hard work and the rest by following scientific principles.
All of this is far from dull; the author has an undercurrent of subtle humour running through the whole book, making one break out into a wry smile every now and then. The key players in this 'dream' are the names that we remember from school, but have forgotten who they were, what they did and why ... this reminds us and fills in a lot of blanks, as well as fleshing out the characters - why they were like that and how they became drawn ino the field of alchemy/chemistry - some for mercenary gain, others for more esoteric reasons. We also hear other names not normally associated with Science - Borodin (music), Francis Bacon (plays), Lucretius (poetry) and many more.
I shall read more of this author's works, if they are in the same vein as this - a thoroughly absorbing and gratifying read!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 4 Aug 2002
Format: Paperback
This is a nice book about not so popular a subject.
To many people, chemistry classes are not the fondest of memories. Some people (like me) have had to endure the gruesome experience of rote learning Mendeleyev's table, and I have had to pass chemistry exams without the table (but needing its information, so I had to know it).
Nevertheless, this book proves that reading about the history of chemistry need not be as gruesome as learning Mendeleyev's table; on the contrary, when it is well told, it is fun. Although little time is spent on Mendeleyev himself (I would actually have liked to learn a little bit more about the man), this book beautifully traces the history of chemistry, from the ancient Greeks, over the alchemists, to early-twentiest century chemistry. It stops at the turn of the century, so it unfortunately lacks information about the fate of chemistry during the twentiest century (which has cost it a star in my rating): nothing is said about the fusion of chemistry with quantum physics for instance, which explains Mendeleyev's table on a deeper fundamental level; neither does one learn about what contemporary chemistry is about.
Nevertheless, this book is easy and fun to read, and should do excellently for a lost afternoon under the cover of a palm tree, or a quiet evening by the fire.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mr. S. P. Johnson on 15 May 2000
Format: Hardcover
Following the success of the recent spate of books based on historical accounts of scientific discovery such as Dava Sobels Longitude and Simon Singhs Fermats Last Theorem, Mendeleyev's Dream could be seen as jumping on the bandwagon of books popularising science and doing for chemistry what Simon Singhs book did for Mathematics. The big difference, however is that the scope of this book is far greater than either of the two books mentioned above. It is a brilliantly written and fascinating account of not just the quest for the elements (as it is subtitled) but nothing less than an account of the human race struggling to understand the world we live in and what it all is, and as such delves into philosophy and physics as much as chemistry. And what a fascinating and at times bloody story it all is! Paul Strathern writes fluidly and lucidly and with a sprinkling of humorous comment about the often absurd theories and beliefs and sometimes brilliantly perceptive flashes of insight which have occurred throughout history. Constantly throughout the book Strathern explains the origin of words and terms we now take for granted. All in all, a fascinating story which would seem absurdly impossible if it wasn't true! This is one of those rare books which is both highly instructive and hugely entertaining.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on 6 Dec 2002
Format: Paperback
Who among us can't recall, at least in a general way, the first day of high school chemistry when we were first confronted with that mysterious Periodic Table of the Elements hanging on the wall? Now, as ignorant novices in Chem 1A, we were at last to be initiated into its arcane symbolism.
MENDELEYEV'S DREAM is the story of chemistry, from the ancient Greek, Anaximenes, with his theory of air as the fundamental element compressible to water and stone, to the gnomic Russian genius, Mendeleyev, who conceived the Periodic Table in the mid-19th century. Conceived it in a dream during an exhausted sleep brought on by overwork and frustrated creativity. Sleeping, when he should have been on his way to address a meeting of local cheese-makers.
The author, Paul Strathern, has written a fine narrative overview of the evolution of the scientific method and the chemist's art, from the philosophical musings of the ancients on the nature of the universe, through the long centuries when alchemy held sway, to chemistry's current place in the Pantheon of Sciences. Along the way, Strathern introduces us to the greatest scientific minds and gifted eccentrics of their respective ages: Empedocles, Aristotle, Zosimus, Jabir ibn-Hayyan, Avicenna, Paracelsus, Nicholas of Cusa, Galileo, Descartes, Francis Bacon, van Helmont, Robert Boyle, Hennig Brand, Karl Scheele, Johann Becher, Henry Cavendish, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, John Dalton, Jöns Berzelius, and a host of others. And, finally, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev.
The nature of the book's subject could easily lend itself to tedium, but the author's style is light - only once does he "balance" a chemical formula, and his intermittent dry wit was much appreciated.
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