cover image MENDELEYEV'S DREAM: The Quest for the Elements

MENDELEYEV'S DREAM: The Quest for the Elements

Paul Strathern, MENDELEYEV'S DREAM: The Quest for the Elements

One of the few things most of us remember from that long-ago high school chemistry class is the periodic table, with the elements laid out like cards in a game of solitaire, the alkali metals running down the left-hand side, the noble gases down the right, and so on. In this readable but flawed book, prolific author Strathern (Hawking and Black Holes; Crick, Watson and DNA; etc.) uses the creation of the periodic table by the great Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who literally dreamed it up, to bookend a journey through the history of chemistry. The author's fascinating accounts of the peculiar early-modern "scientists"—really closer to the medieval alchemists—Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno (the latter Galileo's unlucky predecessor before the Inquisition) show how quackery can combine with real insight to make notable advances in science. But despite many elegantly written pages often filled with good information, much of the book seems facile and hurried, tarnished by statements that are only partly correct and by outright misstatements. (For example, playwright Christopher Marlowe could hardly have been involved in the Gunpowder Plot, since he was murdered 12 years earlier.) Strathern too frequently wanders off on overly extended tangents about historical figures like Sir Francis Bacon, certainly a man important to the history of science but not to the history of chemistry. A book just about Mendeleyev would have proved more useful and worthy of a place on bookshelves. Despite this work's many merits, Strathern's authorial alchemy hasn't managed to turn his base elements into gold. Illus. (Apr.)