February 7, 2011

Pattern recognition

Today is Dimitri Mendeleev’s birthday.  That is, February 8 is his birth date, but it is the eighth in Russia already, so here’s to the guy who made chemistry class bearable – we had the biggest Mendeleev Periodic Table of the Elements ever made, I think, and it was pretty much the only thing to look at while the droning went on.

Dmitri was born in Siberia to a middle-class family, possibly the youngest of 14 children, but sources are a little unsure about that.  What they are sure of is that his father died and the family business burned down when he was in his early teens, so his mother took everybody to St.Petersburg. There he got an education and by the time he was 23, he was a science teacher.

It was while he was teaching that he worked out the table of the elements, presenting it to the Russian Chemical Society in 1869.  By the time it was published in 1870, he had revised it and also predicted new elements as yet undiscovered.

That was the key – others (notably John Newland in England) had noticed relationships between and among the elements that were rapidly being discovered and had begun to arrange them in groups.  But similarities were usually dismissed as coincidences, since too many elements seemed to have no connections at all.

The original periodic table.

Mendeleev solved the problem in one fell swoop – he designed his table with gaps and the gaps, he announced, represented elements that had yet to be discovered.

When five years after his table appeared, a French scientist identified gallium (and named it in Latin for Gaul – France), it fit right into the empty space Mendeleev had left under aluminium.  He had predicted its properties almost exactly.

He was nominated for a Nobel in 1906, but Svante Arrhenius, a respected chemist, talked the committee out of it.  Arrhenius was stil smarting from Mendeleev’s criticism of one of his theories, and when the subject came up again the next year, Arrhenius once again put the kibosh on Mendeleev’s Nobel.

Two other things to note about Mendeleev – at one point , while in charge of Russian weights and measures, he set the standard for the composition of vodka at 40% alcohol.

Second, he was a bigamist.  He divorced his first wife, but married his second just before the official decree.  And in the eyes of the Russian Orthodox Church, he would have been a bigamist in any case, since the church required a wait of seven years before remarriage.

The woman he married – Anna Ivanova Popova – was a friend of his niece’s. English sources on Mendeleev are so thin that if you google Anna, every entry says the same thing: ‘In 1876, he became obsessed with Anna Ivanova Popova …’




  1. Another example of a scientist leading a VERY interesting personal life. A well-furnished mind is compelling. I’ve been intrigued with Einstein’s, Darwin’s and Galileo’s biographies, but was unaware of Mendeleev! A great way to start the day – Thanks, Jean!!


    Comment by Celia Carroll — February 7, 2011 @ 5:58 am | Reply

  2. Cool! 🙂


    Comment by nina c — February 7, 2011 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  3. Beautiful color chart! Kibosh. “Origin unknown.” Damn.


    Comment by Carol — February 7, 2011 @ 4:30 pm | Reply



    Comment by avery — February 8, 2011 @ 7:21 am | Reply

  5. great stuff – why don’t you contribute a bit to the Wikipedia article? Your graphic of the first periodic table would be nice, for instance. I thought I remembered a great anecdote about how he had a vision while stepping onto a bus that solved the periodic-arrangement problem, but haven’t found it anywhere. (I found this page because I was looking for something besides “he became obsessed with Anna…” by the way. She must have been pretty interesting, but might as well not exist… although somewhere I did notice that she had strong opinions on art -her hubby paid attention, and her ideas got HIM a place at the Academy of Arts!


    Comment by Van Howell — September 24, 2011 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

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