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.
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