Friday, September 15, 2006

Mendeleyev's Dream (Paul Strathern)

I've been working with scientists for a little over a year now, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that they believe in, and love, data. So, following in their footsteps, I'd like to present a little data from my experience reading Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern. The inclusion of the word "Mendeleyev" in the main title leads the reader, in this case me, to believe that the book is indeed about Mendeleyev, the Russian scientist who created the Periodic Table of Elements. (Seems straightforward, no?) However, out of the 294 pages of the book, only 39 pages are about Mendeleyev! Thirty-nine! Clever title? Perhaps. Mistitled? Indeed.

While the prologue and the last two chapters focus on Mendeleyev, the rest of the book presents a historical look at the beginnings of chemistry, all the way back to the Greeks. I did learn some interesting trivia: (1) Most of our understanding of chemistry began with (and was driven by) alchemy, the quest to turn nongold objects into gold. (2) Despite not having a substantial role in science for much of history, it's possible that the very first chemists were women, Babylonian women, who made perfume.

But mostly I have to admit I suffered through this book (until about page 100, when I decided to skim the rest until the Mendeleyev chapters at the end). There were some interesting moments throughout (Lavoisier's life and experiments, for example), but overall the format and presentation just didn't do it for me. It felt a lot like the assigned reading in high school, the ones that made science seem uninteresting enough for me not to want to learn more. But I'm learning more interesting scientific things everyday at work, and I just started the next book I'll be posting about, which is also about historical science (and this is clearly stated in the title), only it's so much better. A bajillion times better. (I've only started the first chapter, and it's fairly hefty, but so far it's great.)

Next book up: A Short History of Nearly Everything

1 comment:

Lee Anne said...

Another book that focuses on scientific personalities and the development of scientific theory is E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis. It inspired the NOVA documentary Einstein's Big Idea.

(I heart your blog!)