Best book on the periodic table
When you enter my office, the first thing you see is a giant copy of the periodic table. They include examples or representations of all 118 elements, such as a clock with glow-in-the-dark dials for radium and a bottle of pepto-bismol for bismuth. (Sometimes it’s visitors Just interested in the schedule As they are in anything we meet about – and I don’t blame them!)
Aside from being a neat piece of art, the periodic table reminds me of how one discovery could lead to countless others. All the complexities of the universe come from the properties on this diagram. Because we understand atoms, we can make chips, and so we can make software, and so we can make artificial intelligence. It all goes back to the periodic table.
But how exactly did the periodic table come to be? Anyone who has studied science in elementary school may remember that it was first proposed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. But the table was actually the culmination of two and a half millennia of scientific discovery.
The 1869 version of the periodic table was much simpler than the current version.
Great book by Paul Strathairn Mendeleev’s dream It traces that journey all the way back to ancient Greece, when people first began to wonder why the world was the way it was. It’s hard to imagine a time before science. But until Thales of Miletus discovered that the presence of shell fossils on Earth must mean that the entire world was once a sea, Strathearn reminds us that people were more focused on questions of religion than on questions of science.
Strathairn spends much of his book exploring the roots of chemistry in alchemy, which was one of the oldest forms of science. For centuries, many of the brightest minds – including Isaac Newton – were fascinated by the idea of turning base substances into gold or an elixir that made you immortal. Although science has proven flawed, alchemy has inspired generations of scientists to think about how substances interact with each other.
Mendeleev’s dream It seems like a thick book, but Strathern keeps things light by writing about the many outrageous characters who have studied alchemy and alchemy over the years. One of the most entertaining chapters is on Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and alchemist from the 16th century. Paracelsus made important contributions to toxicology and medicine. He was also a quirky character with a flair for the dramatic. During one of his lectures, Strathearn wrote, “Parcelsus opened by declaring that he would now reveal the greatest secret of medical science. Thence he grandly revealed a bowl of crap.” (He is a man after my heart).
Mendeleev was also an extraordinary man. He was known to be so angry that he would dance “with a Rumpelstiltskin-like fury,” and the title of the book refers to his claim that the periodic table came to him in a dream. Regardless of its origins, there is no doubting the significance of this hack. Other scientists have hinted at repeating patterns in the atomic weights of the elements, but Mendeleev was the first to lay them out—and fill in the gaps. He accurately predicted the presence of gallium and germanium before any of the elements were discovered. For the first time, humanity had a roadmap to understanding the building blocks of the universe.
Mendeleev’s dream It is the best book I have read on the periodic table. It helps you understand how it all comes together and why it’s so useful. It’s also a fascinating look at how a new science can develop. Strathairn calls the story of the periodic table “a stray tale of human ambition” and I agree. The history of chemistry tells us as much about the development of human thinking as it does about the science of matter.
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