Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Well-ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev And The Shadow Of The Periodic Table - Book Review

The man and the country behind the periodic table!

The periodic table would match any other basic scientific discovery on the impact to science and most of us would have heard of Mendeleev (though we might spell it and pronounce it in many different ways). However compared to many other well known scientists like Newton or Darwin or Einstein, we would be hard pressed to recollect much additional information about Mendeleev. We would also be surprised to hear that he came out of Russia - country hardly known for its scientific prowess in the 19th century. Michael Gordin aims to set that right and shows us a full picture of Mendeleev across his life time and the life and culture of Tsarist Russia at that time period.

The author makes it clear that this is not a traditional biography. His plan is to highlight the dilemmas of a nation at the cross roads of history and the achievements of a polymath from a poor background who nevertheless achieves tremendous success (along with failures). And that makes a fantastic story. How come the Periodic table came from Russia? What were the steps that led Mendeleev on this path? How did the final table evolve? What were the other areas that Mendeleev worked on? What were the challenges that he faced? These are the questions that you will find answers to, in this book. Some of it will seem very relevant to modern times - the play of economics, politics, superstition in science and society seems to apply equally well in the 21st century.

This is a good read for anyone interested in history, culture and science. The story of a gifted individual and a great nation and the impact of fundamental transforrmatory forces on them will be difficult to forget.

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