An academic biography, Michael D. Gordin's A Well-Ordered Thing
tells Dmitri Mendeleev's story in dense prose, detailed with Russian history and molecular chemistry. Mendeleev will forever be remembered as the inventor of the periodic table of the elements, which sorts hydrogen, helium, lithium, and so on, according to their weights and properties. Readers unfamiliar with either the periodic table or the politics of Imperial Russia will have a tough go of it. Nevertheless, Gordin's treatment reveals surprising facts about the enigmatic Mendeleev and his social context.
The periodic system was developed in Russia by an individual who was ... trying to bring order to a Russian society that was apparently disintegrating.... In order to understand the building of this part of modern chemistry, one must come to terms with the attempts to create a modern Russia.
Far from a stereotypically isolated scientist surrounded by bubbling beakers and cryptic lore, the "ambitious and energetic" Mendeleev was a very public figure. He involved himself eagerly in the social problems of the day and participated actively in trying to shape a new society. His pursuits included hot-air balloons, art criticism, debunking Spiritualists, and perfecting systems of every kind. When he hit on the idea of periodicity in the elements, he published his table first in a chemistry textbook, later submitting papers to other scientists once his confidence allowed him to make predictions of elements yet to be discovered. Gordin paints Mendeleev as a consummate Imperial who was shocked by the revolution that toppled the Tsar. This complex civil servant and brilliant scientist deserves wider appreciation, and A Well-Ordered Thing
provides a rich context for examination of Mendeleev's life. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
The periodic table of the elements, present in virtually every high school and college chemistry classroom, was conceptualized in large part by the 19th-century Russian chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev. Mendeleev's work was critically important because it brought intellectual order to the many elements and greatly advanced our understanding of how they function. To this day, his work provides a context that enables students' entry into the complexities of chemistry. In this fluid intellectual biography, Gordin, a historian of science and of Russian history at Princeton, focuses on Mendeleev's professional years and puts his scientific activities in the context of the rapidly evolving Russian state. Gordin demonstrates that Mendeleev was adept at using the media to advance his career while attempting to build respect for the role of scientists in a changing society. For example, he played a central role in a scientific endeavor to debunk the spiritualist movement that was spreading rapidly throughout Russia in the 1870s by placing scientific controls on seances. Known during his lifetime as Russia's leading scientist, Mendeleev helped shape imperial policy on a range of scientific and public issues, from taxation to academic policy and from meteorology to metrology. Although Gordin's topic is fascinating, his presentation will be best suited to those with considerable knowledge of Russian history and of science. B&w photos
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