On the night of February 17, 1869, the Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev went to bed frustrated by a puzzle he had been playing with for years: how the atomic weights of the chemical elements could be grouped in some meaningful way--and one that, with any luck, would open a window onto the hidden structure of nature. He dreamed, as he later recalled, of "a table where all the elements fell into place as required." His intuition that when the elements were listed in order of weight, their properties repeated in regular intervals, gave rise to the Periodic Table of the Elements--which, though much revised since, underlies modern chemistry.
Mendeleyev's discovery brackets Paul Strathern's learned and literate history of chemistry. He traces the origins of that science, as it is understood in the West, to the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who backed up his surmises about the nature of things with evidence and used arguments "entirely within the realm of this world." From Thales's day, Strathern takes us into the studies of Arabic-speaking scientists such as Avicenna and Al-Razi, who preserved classical science and added to it their own insights; introduces us to the medieval alchemists who in turn preserved the work of Islamic scholars while questing to discover the inner secrets of matter (and perhaps make a little gold in the bargain); and leads us into the early modern world of such greats as Lavoisier, Van Helmont, and Cavendish, who added rigorous methodology and important discoveries to that quest.
Strathern relates false steps and true breakthroughs alike, and his narrative is a pleasure to read. --Gregory McNamee [via]