Friday, May 7, 2010

Mendeleyev's Dream

Book Review : Mendeleyev's Dream
Author : Paul Strathern
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements", and frankly it's a bit misleading. This is neither a biography of Mendeleyev (that's how author chooses to spell his name) nor is it any introduction to the periodic table. It's a history of Chemistry that begins of course with Greek philosophers, takes interesting detours and ends abruptly without really talking about the periodic table.

As a book on history of Chemistry, it's quite fun to read. In a relatively short book, the author manages to cover many famous scientists, their life stories, their achievements and their impact. Most of it is touching and captivating. The personalities cover a wide range of spectrum. From many famous scientists like Lavoisier, Cavendish to not so well known (at least to a layman) Paracelsus and Scheele. The anecdotes about them range from weird to tragic. The zigzag development of theory covers "Earth, Fire, Air, Water", alchemy, phlogiston to near modern chemistry. This is a very broad scope.

In addition there is a lot of trivia packed into this book, and I mean a lot. I tremendously enjoyed these additional tidbits of knowledge thrown at me.

For good or bad - (and IMHO more bad than good) - there is a lot of opinionated commentary thrown in. I cringed many times while reading the book. Some views get dismissed as religious hocus-pocus, while some are branded as "the biggest blunder in human thought" ! These are admittedly shallow comments. It's akin to dismissing ancient thinkers as stupid, because they thought the universe was earth centric. Without proper understanding of the prevailing social context, available tools for scientific experiments etc. it's simply wrong to make these judgments.

Another drawback is the lengthy detour about scientific revolution. I would have preferred a shorter discussion and more attention to actual periodic table, which was the topic suggested by the book's title !

Overall, this is a very fun book to read. It's also a very good book for high-school students who are really interested in Chemistry and want some historical context.

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