A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table

  • Michael D. Gordin
Basic Books: 2004. 336 pp. $30, £22.50 046502775X | ISBN: 0-465-02775-X
Dmitrii Mendeleev's periodic table was in tune with imperial Russia's desire for social order.

The name of Dmitrii Mendeleev is forever associated with the periodic table, which is found in chemistry laboratories and classrooms around the world. Yet this famous invention, which made sense and order out of the elements, was just one of Mendeleev's numerous achievements. Michael Gordin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Princeton, has reconstructed Mendeleev's heterogeneous career in all its facets and with all its contradictions. His book, A Well-Ordered Thing, is neither a standard scientific biography nor an attempt to demystify this scientist, who became a national icon in Russia. Rather, Gordin uses Mendeleev as an example to explore the life and work of members of the educated élite in the nineteenth century in imperial St Petersburg.

Historians of chemistry might well feel a bit frustrated because there is little chemistry in this book. The need for a means of teaching chemistry was crucial to the creation of the periodic system, so Gordin might have done well to give more attention to Mendeleev's textbooks. His 1861 organic-chemistry textbook is dealt with too hastily, with the excuse that it was quickly eclipsed by Aleksandr Butlerov's book. And Mendeleev's successful Principles of Chemistry could have been analysed against the background of the tradition of university textbooks. Gordin also provides no details about earlier attempts at classification, or about how the periodic system was received either in Russia or abroad.

But the history of chemistry is not Gordin's main focus. Instead he attempts to understand the cultural impact of the major reforms and political upheavals that occurred in imperial Russia before the end of the nineteenth century. From this perspective, Mendeleev's periodic system appears as a metaphor underlying a programme for restructuring and modernizing tsarist Russia. The periodic law, with its predictions of unknown elements and bold corrections of atomic weights, was one expression of an irrepressible attempt to eradicate misfits and anomalies in various domains.

This long-standing quest for order contrasts with Mendeleev's versatility. Although for today's chemists he embodies the chemistry of the elements, he did not spend much time on this topic. He abandoned his research on elements soon after constructing the periodic table, despite uncertainties about the classification of rare-earth elements and rare gases. In the 1870s he initiated a project that was his age's equivalent of ‘big science’ because it involved high-pressure devices. His objective was to investigate deviations from the ideal gas law with the expectation of isolating ether, an unknown, all-pervading substance that was postulated by both Newton's dynamics and James Clerk Maxwell's electromagnetism. Mendeleev's ambition was to integrate ether as a chemical element within the periodic system, in order to unify the natural sciences. He also sought to save the individuality and integrity of chemical elements, which were threatened by radioactivity and electrons — the existence of subatomic particles favoured the view that atomic elements were made up of smaller units.

In the name of science, Mendeleev spent his life fighting against ‘deviations’ or superstitions. For example, he struggled against the fashion among educated people for spiritualism, and set up a commission for investigating mediums at the Russian Physical Society. Mendeleev was also concerned with the public face of science. In the newspapers and in his books, Mendeleev defended the legitimacy and the authority of scientific societies in matters of public opinion. He acted as an expert, first locally and then at the national level, notably through his work on standardization at the Bureau of Weights and Measures and in his attempt to modernize the calendar.

Gordin portrays Mendeleev as a loyal subject of the Tsar, with conservative ideals, who fought desperately against the disintegration both of the Russian Empire and of chemical elements. He never really separated in his mind the future of Russia from the future of science, and had ambitions to be the Russian Newton.

This highly readable book offers two important lessons for working scientists. First, Mendeleev's career illustrates the interplay between scientific creation and economic, political and educational projects. Second, it may be a consolation to know that such a well known scientist endured an incredible number of failures throughout his life. Notably, his project to isolate ether failed and affected his scientific credibility. His solution theory and his views about the origin of oil were wrong. He also failed to reform the calendar, and his application to the Imperial Academy in St Petersburg was turned down. But above all, his firm belief in the individuality of chemical elements — the firm ground in which the periodic system was rooted — finally crumbled.