April 28, 2004
When a young Dmitrii Mendeleev drafted the Periodic Table of Elements as a guide for his chemistry students at St. Petersburg University, he already had dreams of building a unified scientific empire in his home of Russia, with a place for himself in the limelight.
That the Periodic Table predicted the existence of three unknown elements and became the framework for modern chemistry helped Mendeleev’s cause; it gave him a platform for social change and sensationalism. When he battled the emergence of Spiritualism in Russia, playing the skeptical foil in the seances he attended, newspapers across St. Petersburg paid attention. When he ventured into the sky as the novice pilot of a hot-air balloon, and it made meteorology noteworthy in Russia. His attempts to distill a pure “ether” from the earth’s atmosphere were similarly brave, but that chemical prophecy turned out to be less inspired.
Mendeleev’s relationship with the Russian establishment was equally turbulent. He was advisor to the Tsar, vitriolic proponent of protectionism, and he later introduced the metric system to the Russian Empire. But his dramatic rejection at the hands of the Russian Academy of Sciences sent him into a tailspin that saw him spend his later years clawing to hold onto the reputation he established in his youth, while trying to reinvent himself as a scientific legend, a Siberian Isaac Newton. Mendeleev was a loyal subject of the Tsar, but he was also a maverick who thought that only an outsider could perfect a modern Russia. He wanted to remake Russia just as he had remade chemistry, and his successes – and his failures – were significant.
And yet, Mendeleev may be the most important scientist about whom we have known almost nothing – until now, that is. In A Well-Ordered Thing, historian Michael Gordin changes that, drawing a portrait of the man in three full dimensions. A clever and detailed portrait of a man who had nearly been lost to history, A Well-Ordered Thing is a fascinating journey into the world of Imperial Russia – and into the life of one of its most notorious minds.
Michael Gordin is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University where he teaches the history of science and Imperial Russian history. A member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he lives in Princeton, New Jersey. A Well-Ordered Thing won the Basic Prize in History of Science.