Dozing at His Desk

Simon Schaffer

  • A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table by Michael Gordin
    Basic Books, 364 pp, US $30.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 465 02775 X

On the last day of January 1919, the Soviet New Year, the poet Alexander Blok smashed up his father-in-law’s desk. ‘Symbolic action’, Blok recorded pithily in his diary. Michael Gordin’s book helps to explain the action’s symbolism and its violence. Blok’s father-in-law, the desk’s first owner, was the greatest of Russian chemists, Dmitrii Mendeleev, who died in 1907 at the age of 73. Mendeleev had put himself at the centre of imperial Russia’s bickering groups of scholars and officious bureaucrats, its astonishing industrial ambitions and mystical reveries, its Slavophile factionalism and enlightened Westernising aspirations. Trotsky would lecture on his relationship to dialectical materialism, while Lenin, who read his chemistry textbook as a student, would encourage Mendeleev’s daughter to finish a laudatory biography of the nation’s hero. As a historian of Romanov science and politics, Gordin persuasively reads the writing table’s fate at Blok’s hands as a telling response to the pervasive image of the solitary visionary, a turn in the early years of Bolshevik power from the old regime’s industrious elitism to the collectivist future.

The desk figures oddly often in the Mendeleev cult. It’s centre-stage in a series of photographs, taken in 1904 in his seemingly chaotic workroom, in which cascades of paper and portraits of his own scientific heroes surround the charismatic figure of the Russian savant, bearded and unkempt, who stares out at the camera with weary, if aggressive, confidence. Paul Strathern starts his history of chemistry, Mendeleev’s Dream, with a description of one such photograph, seeing in this ‘genius professor’ the modern successor of ‘a Siberian shaman’, a ‘new kind of messiah’. Peter Atkins, a university chemist and science populariser, judges rather that Mendeleev resembled ‘the mad monk Rasputin and had a reputation to match’. In an autobiographical passage entitled ‘Mendeleev’s Garden’, Oliver Sacks recalls the photograph on show in London’s Science Museum just after the Second World War: ‘He looked like a cross between Fagin and Svengali, a wild, extravagant, barbaric figure.’ What Gordin impressively attempts in his book takes us far from these misleading exoticisms towards the science and politics which gave Mendeleev’s world its meanings.

While comparisons with the reputation or image of Rasputin or Svengali are absurd, there has always been a visionary, prophetic, aspect to Mendeleev’s reputation. Gordin’s subtitle gives a clue to the puzzle. In a brief burst of extraordinary energy between early 1869 and late 1871, Mendeleev formulated a chart of the 63 then known elements, from hydrogen to uranium, arranged in periods of increasing atomic weight and groups of similar properties. For its author, this table was ultimately significant as an outward and visible expression of what he called the Periodic Law: the elements’ atomic weights determine their properties, which vary from element to element in a periodic fashion. Much reorganised, reinterpreted and extended, the periodic table still stands as the basic chart of chemical rationality, bringing order to chaos.

Atomic weights, expressed as multiples of the weight of a unit volume of hydrogen gas, have now been displaced by atomic number, the number of protons in the nucleus of the elements’ atoms. In his first draft of the system, Mendeleev had uranium’s atomic weight as 116, putting it in the same group as aluminium and gold – the matter of grouping needed nice judgment. By the end of 1870, he had more than doubled uranium’s weight to 240, shifting it to the group of oxygen and sulphur. The modern table assigns it the atomic number 92, so giving it a place among the rare earths.

The periodic chart now hangs on the wall of countless classrooms, and occupies textbooks, websites and T-shirts. C.P. Snow compared his first sight of it with the transformation of a wild jungle into a tranquil garden. Atkins imagines the periodic kingdom as real territory, and curiously describes the production of elements heavier than uranium during the course of the Manhattan Project as an admirable ‘land reclamation project’. Working long before nuclear scientists reached Los Alamos, Mendeleev was this kingdom’s first successful cartographer.

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