Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements

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9780140284140: Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements

In this book, Paul Strathern, the award-winning novelist and expositor of complex ideas, unravels the dramatic history of chemistry through the quest for the elements. Framing this history is the life-story of the 19th century Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who fell asleep at this desk and awoke after dreaming of the Periodic Table - the template upon which modern chemistry is founded, and the formulation of which marked chemistry's coming of age as a science. From ancient philosophy, through medieval alchemy to the splitting of the atom, this is the true story of the birth of chemistry and the role of one man's dream.

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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

About the Author:

Paul Strathern studied physics, chemistry and maths at Trinity College, Dublin, before switching to philosophy. He is author of several novels, including A Season in Abyssinia, which won the Somerset Maugham prize, and two successful series - Philosophy in 90 Minutes and The Big Idea: Scientists Who Changed the World.

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Strathern, Paul
Published by Penguin Books Ltd (2001)
ISBN 10: 0140284141 ISBN 13: 9780140284140
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Strathern, Paul
Published by Penguin Books Ltd (2001)
ISBN 10: 0140284141 ISBN 13: 9780140284140
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