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Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements Hardcover – April 21, 2001

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On the night of February 17, 1869, the Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev went to bed frustrated by a puzzle he had been playing with for years: how the atomic weights of the chemical elements could be grouped in some meaningful way--and one that, with any luck, would open a window onto the hidden structure of nature. He dreamed, as he later recalled, of "a table where all the elements fell into place as required." His intuition that when the elements were listed in order of weight, their properties repeated in regular intervals, gave rise to the Periodic Table of the Elements--which, though much revised since, underlies modern chemistry.

Mendeleyev's discovery brackets Paul Strathern's learned and literate history of chemistry. He traces the origins of that science, as it is understood in the West, to the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who backed up his surmises about the nature of things with evidence and used arguments "entirely within the realm of this world." From Thales's day, Strathern takes us into the studies of Arabic-speaking scientists such as Avicenna and Al-Razi, who preserved classical science and added to it their own insights; introduces us to the medieval alchemists who in turn preserved the work of Islamic scholars while questing to discover the inner secrets of matter (and perhaps make a little gold in the bargain); and leads us into the early modern world of such greats as Lavoisier, Van Helmont, and Cavendish, who added rigorous methodology and important discoveries to that quest.

Strathern relates false steps and true breakthroughs alike, and his narrative is a pleasure to read. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

One of the few things most of us remember from that long-ago high school chemistry class is the periodic table, with the elements laid out like cards in a game of solitaire, the alkali metals running down the left-hand side, the noble gases down the right, and so on. In this readable but flawed book, prolific author Strathern (Hawking and Black Holes; Crick, Watson and DNA; etc.) uses the creation of the periodic table by the great Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who literally dreamed it up, to bookend a journey through the history of chemistry. The author's fascinating accounts of the peculiar early-modern "scientists" really closer to the medieval alchemists Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno (the latter Galileo's unlucky predecessor before the Inquisition) show how quackery can combine with real insight to make notable advances in science. But despite many elegantly written pages often filled with good information, much of the book seems facile and hurried, tarnished by statements that are only partly correct and by outright misstatements. (For example, playwright Christopher Marlowe could hardly have been involved in the Gunpowder Plot, since he was murdered 12 years earlier.) Strathern too frequently wanders off on overly extended tangents about historical figures like Sir Francis Bacon, certainly a man important to the history of science but not to the history of chemistry. A book just about Mendeleyev would have proved more useful and worthy of a place on bookshelves. Despite this work's many merits, Strathern's authorial alchemy hasn't managed to turn his base elements into gold. Illus.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 21, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312262043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312262044
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an odd book, and a poor history of chemistry. It is not a history of the elements (as the book jacket states) nor a description of Mendeleyev's work. In fact, the author devoted only 13% of the book to Mendeleyev and the periodic table, and over twice that heaping scorn upon ancient Greek philosophers. His description of the Arab alchemists and alchemy philosophy is excellent. After that, he loses his way, and, by the end of the book, Strathern has made it plain he is not a chemist and has little appreciation of the struggle to make a new and unknown reaction proceed down a desired pathway. Scientists noted for theories receive much more attention than specific advances. No mention is made the development of the balance and a definition of mass units or standard volumes to allow chemists to communicate. Lavoisier is grandly proclaimed as, "the Newton of chemistry," and Dalton, whose work on atomic weights and stoichiometery, -- providing chemistry the basic structure needed to advance and is still used by every practicing chemist -- is given the short shift on p. 261 when it is declared that "possessor of the finest chemical mind since Lavoisier" is Mendeleyev. This is a staggering statement, considering that Berzelius, Faraday, Davy, Thompson, Guy-Lussac, Kekule, Perkins, Avogardo, Liebig, Pasteur and many other fine chemists were active during that period.
How Mendeleyev used his table is not covered, and that the table's true value lay in the future in developing chemical bonding and valance theories is only hinted at. The reader is left with an unflattering picture of Mendeleyev (Rumpelstiltskin is mentioned more times than Dalton), and the book ends as it started, talking about dairy farmers.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
This is an outstanding book if you are very interested in both history and science. Some earlier reviewer were disappointed in not finding more information about chemistry, but it's not a chemistry book, it's a history book. A better book about the elements, including each specific element and how each was discovered, is "A Guide to the Elements" by Stwertka.
This book is about the history of chemistry, culminating in Mendeleyev's realization of the periodic table - the "order" in the chemical world that people had been looking for. It's not a book about Mendeleyev, but about his dream, which was every Chemist's dream. Hence, the title Mendeleyev's DREAM.
Strathern has a great grasp of history and an unusual ability to condense complex historical events into just a few sentences. This helps the reader understand the context within with various events take place -- extremely important. The reader who already has a grasp of some basic world history will get more out of this book, however.
I particularly liked how Strathern describes the various characters with warts and all. It makes it so much more fascinating! They are complex people with ambitions, phobias, superstitions, arrogence and so on. The lives of these people are stories in and of themselves, and Strathern makes these stories both readable and believable. I often found myself shaking my head in amazement and/or amusement.
There were some complaints in earlier reviews about Strathern spending too much time on Medieval and Ancient times. I didn't think that was a problem at all. I found it all very interesting, then again, I'm interested Ancient and Medieval History. I think it's important to learn what went on prior to modern science, back in the days of alchemy and elixers. It makes modern science look pretty good.
After I was done with the book I found myself picking it up over and over again, re-reading various passages, still shaking my head in amazement.
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