Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern


This book isn’t exactly about Dimitri Mendeleyev, he only shows up 260 pages into a 295 page book, but there’s the old line “standing on the shoulders of giants”.  This is about the slow process the chemistry went through to develop from the rather haphazard work of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the modern science that it became with Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table.

For the most part, the book is full of tales of the various personalities that paved the way for Mendeleyev.  Big names like Issac Newton, Francis Bacon and Antoine Lavoisier are covered, as are lesser known figures like the unlucky Carl Scheele or the disreputable Johann Becher.  The first half of the book switches between a history of alchemy and a history of empirical science in general, as it needs to.  The later chapters focus more and more on chemistry, and particularly that which led towards the understanding of elements.

It’s a fairly light book, but Strathern does find time to weigh in with opinions – on the views of male scientists that kept it a boy’s club for so long, and on people who either had the right approach but wrong answer or vice versa.  This second point could have had more made of it – it is acknowledged that even good scientists will hold to their beliefs or opinions (Priestly and others trying to hold onto their theories about Phlogiston after Lavoisier’s identification of Oxygen) but it doesn’t really interrupt the sense of progress.

My only real disappointment with the book is the ending point.  Other than a brief comment on the success of the periodic table in the future, the book cuts out at Mendeleyev’s peak.  For what is basically a general history of chemistry, it would be nice to see where the subject went in its mature form.

Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world.  In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.

First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications.  The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).

After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians.  There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.

There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers.  There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another.  It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.

The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered.  The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar.  He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point).  In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.