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Physical Chemistry

The Man behind the Periodic Table

May 24, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 21

A WELL-ORDERED THING: Dmitrii Mendeleev And The Shadow Of The Periodic Table, by Michael D. Gordin, Basic Books, 2004, 358 pages, $30 (ISBN 0-465-02775-X)
A WELL-ORDERED THING: Dmitrii Mendeleev And The Shadow Of The Periodic Table, by Michael D. Gordin, Basic Books, 2004, 358 pages, $30 (ISBN 0-465-02775-X)

Advocates of the liberal arts approach to education will love the historical and political backdrop painted by biographer Michael D. Gordin to illustrate the culture of 19th-century Russia during the life of Dmitrii Mendeleev. This approach emphasizes a holistic view of the scientist as political activist, professor, and pursuer of diverse goals--details about the discoverer of the periodic table that few chemists know.

Instead of a traditional, chronological recounting of the lifestyle and achievements of his subject, Gordin, a history professor at Princeton University, selects several of Mendeleev's major projects--both political and scientific--and uses them to develop his character.

An academic world of formal collaboration and communication was more common in the 19th century than it is today. In contrast to the usual isolation of most scientists from politicians that characterizes the current academic climate, scientists and politicians of 19th-century Russia socialized in the same circles and worked on the same government committees.

Gordin captures the essence of Mendeleev's passion for public affairs in a clear and detailed account of his involvement with Russian tariff policy, meteorology, introduction of the metric system, and Arctic exploration. Gordin's extensive knowledge about the dynamics of imperial Russia provides an extraordinary view of the culture in which Mendeleev lived. However, in some instances the details of the Russian government snatch some of the clarity from Mendeleev's true claim to fame: his development of the periodic table.

Granted, the subtitle "Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table" hints that, during his lifetime, the periodic table was not considered Mendeleev's most important achievement. As a scientific tool that was still largely debated by scientists of the time, the periodic table was not enough to earn him entrance into the Russian Academy of Sciences. Mendeleev was probably better known in Russia for his failure to gain this prestigious membership. It may have been his cantankerous personality that drew the most attention in his day.

In the midst of Gordin's informative account of Russian history, the biography barely touches on Mendeleev's personal life. Gordin discusses Mendeleev's scandalous divorce--so unusual that even a reputable bureaucrat could not convince the tsar to repeat the process for him. There is scant information in the book about Mendeleev's family, and the biography does not divulge much in the way of his personal relationships.

The book also doesn't fully describe Mendeleev's scientific experiments. Although Gordin explains that mass was Mendeleev's basis for ordering the elements in the periodic table, he barely mentions that the modern periodic table is ordered by atomic number--the number of protons in the nucleus.

In his conclusion, Gordin depicts Mendeleev as a combination of a painting and a statue. A painting that hangs over Mendeleev's desk in the Mendeleev Museum-Archive in St. Petersburg depicts a lone pine tree, which embodies the isolated, independent thinker who so often defied the ways of the establishment in favor of his own romantic ideas. A statue of Mendeleev in front of the Chief Bureau of Weights & Measures in St. Petersburg, erected shortly after his death, stares down the road that connects St. Petersburg to Moscow. It embodies his ideas of the influence of science on policy-making.

Gordin uses these works of art to illustrate the dichotomy of these opposing Mendeleevs. Perhaps if he were a chemist, Gordin might have more fully embraced a third, and ultimately most important, Mendeleev--the inventor of the periodic system used to order the chemical world.

Julie A. Kinyoun is a chemist by training who enjoys her freelance writing career when she is not working at EMD Biosciences, San Diego.


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