As I’ve written about before, the world lacks an effective system to detect, respond to, or prevent the next outbreak.
When you walk into my office, one of the first things you see is a huge version of the periodic table. It includes examples or representations of all 118 elements, like a clock with glow-in-the-dark dials for radium and a bottle of Pepto Bismol for bismuth. (Sometimes visitors are just as interested in the table as they are in whatever we’re meeting about—and I don’t blame them!)
Aside from being a neat piece of art, the periodic table reminds me of how one discovery can lead to countless others. All the complexity of the universe comes from the properties on that chart. Because we understand atoms, we can make chips, and therefore we can make software, and therefore we can make AI. Everything goes back to the periodic table.
But how exactly did the periodic table come to be? Anyone who has taken a grade school science class might remember that it was first proposed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev. But the table was actually the culmination of two-and-a-half millennia of scientific discovery.
The 1869 version of the periodic table was a lot simpler than the current one.
Paul Strathern’s terrific book Mendeleyev’s Dream traces that journey all the way back to ancient Greece, when people first started questioning why the world is the way it is. It’s hard to imagine a time before science. But until Thales of Miletus figured out that the presence of seashell fossils on land must mean the entire world was once a sea, Strathern reminds us that people were more focused on questions of religion than on questions of science.
Strathern spends much of his book exploring chemistry’s roots in alchemy, which was one of the earliest forms of science. For centuries, many of the brightest minds—including Isaac Newton—were fascinated by the idea of turning base materials into gold or an elixir that made you immortal. Although the science proved to be faulty, alchemy inspired generations of scientists to think about how materials interact with each other.
Mendeleyev’s Dream sounds like a dense book, but Strathern keeps things light by writing about the many outrageous personalities who studied alchemy and chemistry over the years. One of the most entertaining chapters is about Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist from the 1500s. Paracelsus made important contributions to toxicology and medicine. He was also a quirky character with a flair for the dramatic. During one of his lectures, Strathern writes, “Paracelsus opened by announcing that he would now reveal the greatest secret in medical science. Whereupon he dramatically uncovered a pan of excrement.” (He’s a man after my own heart.)
Mendeleyev was also an unusual guy. He was known to get so angry that he would dance “with Rumpelstiltskin-like rage,” and the book’s title refers to his claim that the periodic table came to him in a dream. Regardless of its origins, there is no question of how significant a breakthrough this was. Other scientists had hinted at repeating patterns in the atomic weights of elements, but Mendeleyev was the first to lay them out—and fill in the gaps. He accurately predicted the existence of gallium and germanium before either element was discovered. For the first time, humanity had a road map to understanding the building blocks of the universe.
Mendeleyev’s Dream is the best book I’ve ever read on the periodic table. It helps you understand how it all got pieced together and why it’s so helpful. It’s also a fascinating look at how a new science develops. Strathern describes the story of the periodic table as “a wayward parable of human aspiration,” and I agree. The history of chemistry tells us as much about the evolution of human thinking as it does about the science of matter.