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Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements Hardcover – 25 May 2000
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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
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
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!
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.
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. What, for instance, was Hennig Brand doing with those fifty buckets of putrefying human urine? His neighbors were undoubtedly not thrilled. And why might the Dutch Assembly have been justified in tacking-up "wanted-posters" around town for Johann Becher, who had just absconded on a fast boat for London?
A scientist himself, Paul has not penned a great technical piece. Rather, he's written an uncomplicated, engaging work of popular science likely to appeal to those of us who ... well, let's just say, didn't learn to transmute lead into gold, much less ace Chem 1A. Now, if someone could just do the same for differential calculus.
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