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.

As with any other fundamental discovery, legends accumulated as to the origins of the periodic table. Some were cultivated, much later in life, by the discoverer himself. There was talk of a marvellous dream, while dozing at his desk, which inspired the new principle of order. Some imagined that Mendeleev had simply played patience with cards marked with each element’s atomic weight and a summary of its salient properties. Others urged the importance of his long and strenuous experimentation. There is little if any evidence for such tales. Rather, as previous Soviet historians have stressed and Gordin amply demonstrates, the periodic table and the periodic law emerged during the course of the conscientious composition of a mundane chemistry textbook.

Chemistry had long been a science devoted to classification and tabulation, and its textbooks were objects of ordered synthesis. Mendeleev sought a pragmatic organising principle for his exposition of state of the art chemical doctrine for St Petersburg students. He understandably considered the result, his extraordinary Principles of Chemistry, as ‘my favourite child’. Eight editions appeared before his death, each adorned with chatty footnotes of increasing length and detail. (Gordin seems equally devoted to extensive annotations, which spread over sixty infuriatingly unindexed pages of tiny type and contain much of the body of his argument.) The Principles would cast a long shadow over Mendeleev’s life and reputation.

Surely the prophet of chemistry’s new-found land must have possessed all the qualities of a radical seer. Not so. Just as it has proved hard to take seriously the suggestion that a dramatic innovation could emerge from writing a workaday textbook in a sclerotic tsarist university, so it has been difficult to appreciate the deeply entrenched conservatism in the name of which Mendeleev proposed a reordering of the elements. ‘People imbued with science are essentially and unavoidably conservative,’ he insisted; there were no ‘revolutions or coups’ in nature or the sciences, and none needed in the state.

Gordin has a seductive way of linking Mendeleev’s science and politics. In the application of orderly abstract systems to real-world phenomena, there will always be systematic misfits. Gordin’s claim is that this was true both of chemical elements and of Russian society. Such anomalies could be ignored, absorbed or expelled; the choice of tactics was in the hands of the systematiser, whether an imperial administrator or a chemistry professor. This model helps Gordin offer a workable account of Mendeleev’s initial work on periodicity. There were gaps in his early schemes, terrae incognitae occupied by unknown elements awaiting discovery. The periodic law let him guess these elements’ properties, their melting points, densities and solubilities. Three of them were indeed identified within fifteen years of the table’s first publication, by chemists in France, Sweden and Germany. By downplaying any salient differences between prediction and reality, Mendeleev and his allies turned the Western European discoveries into sterling evidence for his periodic law’s power.

Not everyone was immediately swayed by these prophecies. The first new element, which fitted in the gap just after zinc and in the same group as aluminium, was baptised ‘gallium’ by its discoverer, the French spectroscopist Lecoq de Boisbaudran – the name’s Latin form playing both on the nationality and the name of its discoverer. But Lecoq initially denied that gallium fitted into Mendeleev’s scheme. The Russian had entirely mistaken its melting point while other eminent chemists argued that his prediction for its atomic weight was wrong. The systematic misfit was eventually tamed. Gordin points to the ‘chemical intuition built into Mendeleev’s predictions’. Philosophers and scientists have since been much exercised by the potency of such intuitive predictions. Should we be more impressed by successful predictions of yet unknown phenomena rather than by a brilliantly exhaustive assimilation of the known? There’s no easy logical distinction between prediction and explanation. Maybe the bias in favour of good predictors has something to do with reasonable scepticism about theorists’ agility: doctrines can be fudged to fit what’s known, but theoreticians have less freedom of manoeuvre when getting the unknown future straight.

It’s not entirely clear whether Mendeleev’s colleagues were moved more by his prophecies of new elements than by his remarkable skill in ordering what was already known. Nor was he the first chemist to predict unknown elements on the basis of their periodic ordering. Gordin passes disappointingly quickly over the important disputes as to who got there first that disturbed Mendeleev’s career. (Jan van Spronsen’s definitive history of the discovery of the periodic system, published in 1969, plausibly finds six independent claimants to the title.) Lecoq himself eventually designed his own rather bizarre periodic system, which predicted quite successfully the atomic weights of hitherto unknown inert gases such as xenon and krypton. Mendeleev had trouble with these gases, and only later found a place in the table for them. Nor were all his predictions right. He hazarded that there were elements in every gap between hydrogen (atomic weight 1) and lithium (7). There aren’t. He predicted properties for many elements that proved illusory. Here his chemical intuition failed him. In particular, he foresaw the existence of an element he portentously named ‘newtonium’, a space-filling ether of tiny atomic weight which could explain everything from optics and electromagnetism to radioactivity. ‘In these invisible and apparently chaotic movements, reaching from the stars to the minutest atoms,’ Mendeleev told a London audience in 1889, ‘there reigns a harmonious order.’

Gordin recounts Mendeleev’s firm views about predictive science and its role in the Russian Empire. He insisted that only systems with a grip on reality that enabled management of the future had the status of science and the power to secure social stability. Methodologists may bicker about the appropriate weight to be given to accommodation and prediction; this chemist and administrator sought to make his world predictable, then based his authority on that achievement. Here Gordin’s unprecedentedly careful analysis of Mendeleev’s long career in state service pays rich dividends. Typically, his work as an economic consultant in agriculture and industry, his management of Russia’s entire system of weights and measures, his fights with spiritualists and his bold balloon flight during a solar eclipse have figured merely as appealing colour in an otherwise solid narrative of chemical inquiry. But by treating each of these episodes as revealing clues to Mendeleev’s vision for the empire and for his science, Gordin manages to explain just how much the future counted for this conservative expert, even though his imagined version of it never quite came to pass.

Mendeleev’s world, its social vision forged in the wake of Russia’s catastrophic defeat in the Crimean War and the abolition of serfdom, was established in the face of economic crisis and fears of revolution and global war, and resonates with the epic fictions of his time. He was never a devotee of the novels of Turgenev, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, much preferring Dumas’s swashbuckling romances, the scientific fantasies of Jules Verne and the charms of Western cowboy stories (Verne’s story of polar exploration was read to him on his deathbed). But his career well fits those of the great Russian novelists’ imaginings. Towards the end of Fathers and Sons, the novel in which Turgenev most lucidly posed the fundamental Russian political dilemma of reconciling reformist social change with the threat of nihilist violence, we learn of the young Russian students at Heidelberg, who ‘at first astonish the naive German professors by their sober outlook on things’. The passage was written when Mendeleev was himself studying chemistry in Heidelberg, and it was at this time, so Gordin urges, that he experienced his first startling vision of science’s prospects. Charismatic lectures at a major German chemical congress showed him for the first time how to understand atomic weight and how to turn the disorder of chemistry’s elementary substances into a better system. Then he applied the lesson to the whole of the empire.

On his return to Russia, Mendeleev soon found himself in the stifling worlds of academy and bureaucracy. Gordin is at his best documenting the vagaries of tsarist policy and St Petersburg fashion. It was hard for Mendeleev to find a place where he could make his science pay dividends for conservative politics. His private life became the stuff of a quasi-Tolstoyan romance. An unhappily married professor, he became obsessed with a teenage art student, threatened suicide if she would not marry him, pursued her to Italy, and eventually married her after bribing a priest to allow the union before sufficient time had elapsed after separation from his wife. He became involved, too, in dramatic scenes at a fashionably shadowy séance: Mendeleev decided to strike a match to cast light on the shenanigans of a pair of Geordie teenagers who, he judged, were conning gullible aristo circles in the Russian capital. He even invented a madcap theory as to why women were seduced by such spiritualist trickery: with ectoplasm’s aid, he guessed, they must imagine they could perform the work of any man, and thus get the rewards patriarchy had so long monopolised.

Violent disagreements were aired in the newspapers when Mendeleev was barred entry to the Academy of Sciences. Patriotic journalists alleged that an alien Germanic coterie was biased against this true son of the Siberian soil. Ultimately, Mendeleev found his proper place as chief economic adviser to the viciously reactionary regime of Alexander III, counselling severe protectionism and an empire-wide system of vigilant standardisation and immutable administrative order.

Mendeleev repeatedly taught that nature’s order was real, and he was its law-giver. He loathed modish Fin-de-Siècle enthusiasms, whether Marxist or radioactivist. He damned what he saw as the alchemical mysticism of radioactive transmutation peddled by the Curies in Paris. He pooh-poohed ambitious young Cambridge physicists’ seemingly absurd guesswork about the existence of subatomic particles. He reckoned disturbances in his ethereal newtonium would easily explain everything the French experimenters were reporting from their disorderly basement labs and that his immutably indissoluble atoms would shrug off British challenges to the elements’ primordial existence. These spectacular errors barely alter the significance of Mendeleev’s periodic table. But, as Gordin shows, they do explain why he thought the table mattered. They remind us that Mendeleev was an unabashed protagonist of classical 19th-century order, not a herald of unimaginable scientific modernity.

In his passionate London lecture of 1889, Mendeleev called his fellow chemists to ‘take their stand under the peaceful and catholic shadow’ of his scientific vision. Gordin’s treatment of his complex programme for the salvation of science and nation makes sense because it avoids simplistic reduction of his protagonist’s life-work either to scientific reason or to political exigency. The romantic hero of unrealised economic reform, military aeronautics or utopian polar voyages was entangled, in Mendeleev’s own painstaking self-presentation, with the methodical administrator of the national system of standardised measures and the periodic system of atomic weights. Just as long as he saw the tsarist regime as an autocracy whose unconstrained will was directed towards lawlike advance, he would be able and enthusiastically willing to put the most advanced science at the empire’s service.

The unforeseen revolutions of the 20th century’s first decade, launched from the bustling streets and messy workshops of proletarian struggle and artful experimentation, terminally challenged the fundamental principles for which Mendeleev stood: Nicholas II went the way of newtonium. Very much more secure, the periodic table itself is still occasionally troubled by systematic misfits. Since 1919, when war ended everywhere save Russia and Mendeleev’s desk was destroyed, the table’s good order has been under the control of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, a self-described ‘scientific, international, non-governmental and objective’ body. In the last year, Peter Atkins and his Union colleagues have been arguing, yet again, about how the table should be structured. Where, for instance, should hydrogen, first of elements, be put? Is it like lithium, or more like an inert gas, or is it to be given a proudly solitary place at the table’s head? The Union will decide on whether this troublesome element should be expelled, accommodated or ignored. Thus patched up and ingeniously mutated, Mendeleev’s astonishingly robust table still survives the wreckers’ attentions.