By Stan Persky | February 10, 2002

Paul Strathern, Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements (Penguin, 2001)

In recent years I’ve been reading more histories of science and biographies of scientists. Given my limited understanding of science, almost all of them have been "popular" rather than scholarly or technical accounts. They’re of interest to me for the altogether conventional reason that I want to know more about the Way the World Is.

We already know, or should know, that there is no human nature, apart perhaps from a minimal biological definition of the organism, and even the latter claim is arguable.* We further know that there is no absolute morality established by some authority outside of ourselves, no "natural law" that prescribes human relationships, and no scientific politics, notwithstanding the vain hopes of Marxism, as late as the 1970s, to be a science in the way physics or chemistry is a science. Yet, we retain the idea that at least "real science" (physics, etc.) accurately, cumulatively, and progressively represents the Way the World Really Is, that what science says about the world when it’s right corresponds to reality. In contemporary philosophy this view is sometimes known as "scientific realism," or more broadly, to use the term employed by philosopher John Searle, "external realism."

[*Body-note: I’d no sooner uttered the above modernist shibboleth about human nature than I read–and thus should report–Raymond Tallis’s emphatic denial of same: "Ironically, the Darwinian critique of objective truth reveals, by default, the very place where we should look for an understanding of truth: in our distinctive, non-natural human nature… It is in us alone that ‘How things are’ is expressed in true statements about how things are: sentience is collectivized as knowledge and experience becomes utterance." (Tallis, "The Truth about Lies," TLS, Dec. 21, 2001.)]

One of the major philosophic ideas of postmodernism–although this is an idea that hasn’t reached most of the English Department faculty who imagine themselves to be postmodernists, deconstructionists, Theorists (with a capital T), etc.–is that even scientific realism is untrue, or to put it in the colloquial language favoured by "neopragmatist" philosophers like Richard Rorty, scientific realism is not a very interesting or useful idea.

The challenge to scientific realism began its modern career with philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (c. 1963), which argued that a scientific "finding," or the establishment of a large scientific "paradigm" (say, evolution), was more usefully understood as an agreement among certain scientists trying to solve particular anomalies that former beliefs or paradigms cast up than as a truth about the world that had been lying there waiting to be discovered. In short, truth, even scientific truth, is (in at least one sense) made, not found.

Rorty, to my mind the leading American philosopher of our era, suggests that "we should give up the idea that knowledge is an attempt to represent reality. Rather, we should view inquiry as a way of using reality. So the relation between our truth claims and the rest of the world is causal rather than representational. It causes us to hold beliefs which prove to be reliable guides to getting what we want." This is a notion close to the ideas of Nelson Goodman, a philosopher who was prominent in the 1950s, and wrote Ways of World-Making. Rorty goes on to assert, "Goodman is right to say that there is no one Way the World Is, and so no one way it is to be accurately represented." (Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin, 1999, p. 33.)

This is not at all to claim, as Rorty is frequently misunderstood to be saying, that there is no real world, or that the world is solely our creation. "To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes that do not include [human] mental states. To say that truth is not out there"–the contrary slogan of the TV program X-Files notwithstanding–"is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human language, and that human languages are human creations." (Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge, 1989.) With respect to scientific realism, Rorty adds, "There is no activity called ‘knowing’ which has a nature to be discovered, and at which natural scientists are particularly skilled. There is simply the process of justifying beliefs to audiences. None of these audiences is closer to nature… than any other." (Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 36.)

Unsurprisingly, this kind of talk by Rorty drives most non-neopragmatist philosophers crazy. As much as I like Rorty’s thinking, I’m nonetheless resistant to his views about scientific realism. I tend to lean toward the side of the pro-scientific realists, and at the very least, I retain a degree of undecidedness that takes the form: perhaps scientific realism is not very ‘interesting’ but ‘true’–and vice-versa. Rorty also says there’s no reason to hold a belief unless it makes a practical difference (that point is what makes him a neo-pragmatist, i.e., someone following in the footsteps of William James and John Dewey). For example, the reason to hold the view that the guys in favour of jihad are nuts is because it makes a difference to our efforts to resist them (to the death, if need be). At the same time, you can also see that the belief that the jihad guys are nuts only makes sense if you have a belief in "reason," and you can understand, even if you don’t agree with, Rorty’s point that there’s no independent way to establish that "reason" is true, although you may have some good practical reasons for believing in reason as something preferable to religious fundamentalism. In the case of science, I’m not sure what difference it makes to believe or not believe in scientific realism.

I mention all of this just to provide a context for discussing Paul Strathern’s popular and entertaining history of chemistry, Mendeleyev’s Dream–the title refers to the late 19th century Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who came up with the idea of the Periodic Table of Elements–and because Strathern doesn’t mention any of this at all. The "popular" history of science genre, by definition, lives in a happier, less troubled realm of narrative than denser textualities of writing.)

Strathern, who has written a dozen or so of this kind of book, from Pythagoras and his Theorem to Hawking and Black Holes, opens Mendeleyev’s Dream with a scene-setter. There’s a photograph of the gnomic, long-haired, white-bearded scientist seated at a vast littered desk. In 1869, Mendeleyev, professor of chemistry at St. Petersburg University, "was puzzling over the problem of the chemical elements… the alphabet out of which the language of the universe was composed." Of the 63 different chemical elements so far discovered, from gold to rubidium, it was known, first, "that every one of these elements consisted of different atoms, and that the atoms of each element had their own unique properties," but that some elements possessed vaguely similar properties, enabling them to be roughly classified together in groups. Second, the atoms which made up the different elements were known to have different atomic weights, from the lightest element, hydrogen, with an atomic weight of 1, to lead, which was thought to have an atomic weight of 207. "This meant that the elements could be listed in linear form, according to their ascending atomic weights. Or they could be assembled in groups with similar properties. Several scientists had begun to suspect that there was a link between these two methods of classification–some hidden structure upon which all the elements were based." Mendeleyev was one of those scientists. The discovery of a structure here, Strathern says, would do for chemistry what Newton had done for physics and what Darwin had done, only a decade before, for biology. "It would reveal the blueprint of the universe." Discovering the pattern of the relationship between the elements "could be the first step towards uncovering, in future centuries, the ultimate secret of matter, the pattern upon which life itself was based, and perhaps even the origins of the universe."

On Feb. 17, 1869, after almost three continuous days of racking his brains over the problem of the elements, Mendeleyev was scheduled to catch a morning train to his country estate in the province of Tver where he was due to meet with a delegation of local cheese-makers and to tour the neighbouring farms. One inadvertent clue to the elements had emerged on previous long journeys from Petersburg to Tver, where Mendeleyev would while away the time playing patience, turning over the cards and sorting them into suits and descending numbers as the birches, lakes, and wooded hills slid past outside the train windows. At some point that morning, Mendeleyev, ruminating in his study, decided to postpone his departure to later that afternoon, and pulled out a pile of blank white cards, filling 63 of them with the weight and characteristic properties of the elements. After arranging and rearranging the cards in various patterns, looking again and again, he noticed something. "Certain similar properties seemed to repeat in the elements at what appeared to be regular numerical [atomic weight] intervals. Here was something! But what? A few of the intervals began with a certain regularity, but then the pattern just seemed to peter out." There was something there, but he couldn’t quite get it. Even though the departure time of the day’s last train to Tver was rapidly approaching, Mendeleyev, "momentarily overcome by exhaustion, leaned forward, resting his shaggy head on his arms. Almost immediately he fell asleep, and had a dream."

While Mendeleyev dreams, between the charming prologue and the closing chapters when he wakes, Strathern provides a popular history of chemistry, one that takes us from the first speculations of the ancient Greeks and others about water, air, fire and earth, to the state of scientific play in the mid-19th century at the moment of Mendeleyev’s discovery. Rather than usurp the function of Strathern’s account by reprising it in detail, I’ll just pick out a few moments that caught my eye.

Chemistry gets its name, according to the Roman historian Pliny, from khemeia, an Egyptian word, which occurs in various ancient hieroglyphs in connection with the burial of the dead. Pliny even suggests that the word, meaning "black," was originally the name of Egypt, after the dark rich soil of the Nile delta. In any case, as Strathern suggests, chemical knowledge begins as knowledge "of the chemical processes involved in embalming the dead… to preserve the corpse for its journey to the world of the dead." Although this association with the underworld immediately cast the practitioners of khemeia as magicians, such practices evolved to include other processes, such as glass-making, dyeing, and especially the art of metallurgy, which led to the obsession with creating gold out of dross. Only much later, during the Christian Dark Ages in the West, does the word pick up the Arabic prefix "al-" to become alchemy, even as the Islamic empire becomes the repository of what knowledge, scientific and other, there is.

For a remarkable number of centuries, knowledge of chemical processes is inextricably entangled with the alchemical project. As Strathern observes, "Alchemy was made for the medieval mind. Here metaphysics and the world were inextricably entwined: base metals transmuted into gold; the appetites of the flesh transmuted into the strivings of the spirit… Alchemy sought to change the world: to bring base nature to golden perfection, to create order out of chaos." Of course, since this was God’s realm, alchemy always flirted with blasphemy as it attempted to play God.

Not until the early 1500s–coincident with the era of Luther’s Reformation of the Catholic Church, and Erasmus’s resistance to both Luther and the Pope–do we encounter a figure like the physician/chemist Paracelsus, who takes what Strathern calls "the first steps out of the medieval quagmire on to the firm ground of scientific method." Paracelsus, says Strathern, was the first European doctor to suggest that when introduced into the body in small doses, "what makes a man ill also cures him," a prescient intimation of the principle of inoculation. And though chemistry was still alchemy, "Paracelsus roundly declared that alchemy was wasting its time in trying to produce gold. The techniques of alchemy should be put at the service of medicine–to produce chemical cures for sickness and diseases… Medicine would then become a science, rather than the faintly dubious art which it then appeared to be." It’s because of such notions that Strathern rates Paracelsus as an emergent chemist. "He believed that all life was in reality a series of chemical processes. The body was nothing more than a chemical laboratory. When it became ill, this was due to a chemical imbalance or malfunction."

Paracelsus’s most hilarious moment (and one of the more outrageous events in the history of science) occurred in 1527 at Basel, Switzerland, where the 33-year-old doctor had wangled a posting as town medical officer and lecturer in medicine at the University of Basel. Just as Luther nailed his revolutionary theological theses to a church door, Paracelsus publicly posted the schedule of his forthcoming lectures, declaring that contrary to tradition his lectures would be open to all and delivered in German so they could be understood by everybody. Even local alchemists and lowly barber-surgeons were invited to attend. The hall was packed, and the lectures themselves proved no anticlimax to their sensational billing.

Dressed in his alchemist’s leather apron rather than academic robes, "Paracelsus opened by announcing that he would now reveal the greatest secret in medical science. Whereupon he dramatically uncovered a pan of excrement." Even as the audience began leaving the hall in disgust, Paracelsus shouted after them, "If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physician." Successful or not, Paracelsus’s "shit lecture" not only created–pardon the pun–a stink, but marks the dividing line between the old vapid medical notion of "humours" and a new iatrochemistry which proposed to treat diseases with medicines that could be prepared from mineral sources. Coincidentally, while Paracelsus was lecturing in Switzerland, in Poland Copernicus was displacing humanity from the centre of the universe with his heliocentric theory of the planets.

I think what most fascinates me in Strathern’s account of the development of chemistry is precisely this hinge period between alchemy and science. I try to imagine a world without science as we know it–science, that is, as indubitable knowledge. But of course that’s merely an anachronistic fantasy. The denizens of the 16th century did not feel there was a lack of sound knowing. Perhaps it is ourselves, with the new "scientific" standard of knowledge (whether it’s the Way the World Is or not), who are best positioned to experience the gaps. They’re immediately apparent, for example, in something like the present state of dietary or nutritional science, where we’re inundated with a hodgepodge of daily conflicting reports: coffee is bad for you, coffee is good for you; lose weight by loading up on bacon, beefsteaks, McBurgers, or don’t endanger your already pre-diabetic health by buying into high-protein, cholesterol-loaded charlatanry. Any nutbar claim, no matter how outrageous, gets its 15-column-inches of fame.

Yet as soon as we get to Galileo, a bare century later, it’s suddenly recognizable science and not hocus-pocus. "Only when Galileo combined mathematics and physics," says Strathern, "was it possible to conceive of the notion of measurable force. And with that modern science was born. Applying mathematical analysis to the problems of physics gave rise to experimental science in the modern sense." Once Galileo looks through a telescope and sees the phases of Venus–crescent, half-sphere, full–he knows that "as with the moon, the light from Venus was obviously reflected from the sun–and these phases showed that it revolved around the sun. Here was incontrovertible observational evidence that Copernicus had been right about the solar system."

Contemporaneously, chemistry sets off. The Belgian Jan van Helmont begins to understand gases and weights in the early 17th century. By mid-century Otto von Guericke figures out the vacuum and demonstrates it in circus-like public experiments featuring copper globes and teams of horses attempting to pull the two halves of the globe apart. "The crowd fell silent as the powerful drayhorses heaved, but no matter how they were whipped they were unable to separate" the two hemispheres. Guericke turns to the crowd. It’s not a trick, he tells them. "All that was holding together the two hemispheres was the pressure of the air surrounding them." The crowd was amazed. But the experiment wasn’t over. The horses were led away, Guericke fiddled with the pump that had earlier sucked the air out of the globe. "There was a sudden hissing sound as the outside air pressure rushed into the hollow globe to fill the vacuum. Then, without warning, the two copper hemispheres simply fell apart, of their own accord." Guericke’s experiment was soon wowing crowds and crowned heads all over Europe.

In 1661, England’s Robert Boyle publishes The Sceptical Chymist, in which he not only clearly writes up his experiments to facilitate easy replication, and inaugurates the dropping of the "al-" from alchemy, but it’s also where Boyle asserts that elements are primary particles. As Strathern puts it, "Any substance which could not be broken down into a simpler substance was an element. Here for the first time is an understanding of the elements which matches the idea we have today." But Boyle goes on to make a further fundamental distinction. "These elements could combine together in groups or clusters to form a compound. (This is the first occurrence of the notion which would develop into the modern idea of a molecule.)… Boyle concluded that all these compound substances depended for their properties upon the number and position of the elements they contained. Again, this description is uncannily accurate: the flash of insight which would later lead to molecular theory." A century and a half later, give or take a few years, another Englishman, John Dalton, comes up with the notion that elemental atoms could be weighed relative to each other, if not absolutely. Thus, in a sense, scientific realism matters less than the internal coherence of the scheme, especially since you can do practical things, using the conceptual construction. Whether science is finding or making is less relevant than that it works.

Strathern tells this longish engrossing story with economy and verve. He also narrates it clearly enough that even a "science for dummies" audience (myself included) can get most of what’s going on. At the end, Strathern remembers to wake Mendeleyev up, and gives us the Russian’s own words: "I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper." In his dream, Strathern says, "Mendeleyev had realized that when the elements were listed in the order of their atomic weights, their properties repeated in a series of periodic intervals. For this reason, he named his discovery the Periodic Table of the Elements." The table was published a fortnight later in Mendeleyev’s historic paper, "A Suggested System of the Elements."

Of course, Mendeleyev had to concede that at first sight, his table appeared to contain gaps and anomalies. Some of the atomic weights didn’t conform to the precise ascending order. Mendeleyev solved this problem by suggesting the weights of certain elements had been calculated incorrectly. It turned out he was right. Even more boldly, he filled in the gaps by predicting that they would one day be filled in by elements which had not yet been discovered. They were. A century and a half later, Mendeleyev’s conception of the structure of the building blocks of the universe has held up remarkably well. That structure includes element number 101, found in 1955, which was named "mendelevium."

There may not be one Way the World Is, as Rorty and like-minded thinkers suggest. And certainly I think that Rorty is onto something which his detractors fail to see when he undermines the foundational reality we wish was there. But the temporal stability of things like the Periodic Table, however relative its reality may be, is oddly reassuring, especially amid the instabilities of human relationships, politics, even art. Rorty would not be disturbed by realism as temporal stability or accumulation, since he thinks history or time "goes all the way down" when it comes to reality, knowledge, reason, and the rest. He only objects to those entities whose foundational claim is outside time and space. The elements, happily, are to date within those boundaries, or at least they seem to be. But I’m reminded by my temporary southeast Asian location, where the year is 2545, that not even time is as stable as we imagine it. As for matter, the Buddhist philosophers hereabouts see it as an illusion that, once abandoned, allows us to move toward nothingness.

3518 w. February 10, 2002


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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