Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: Mendeleyev's Dream

This one's a history of the periodic table. Since the Weter Lecture I'm writing is about how the periodic table relates to creation, I thought this might have a nugget or two. I think the beginning and the end of the story (the Greeks and Mendeleyev himself, respectively) are done well, but the middle takes way too many detours into alchemy and physics to stay on task. Is it really so bad that Aristotle's four elements were wrong? Weren't they right in some way? And if you're going to bring up Galileo in a book about chemistry can you at least bring up something new about him? There is a pervasive air of "scientific orthodoxy" hovering over this book in which the Middle Ages are just an intellectual backwater (except for THIS exception, oh and that other one, and the other one there ... until the number of exceptions make you skeptical that such a cliche was true in the first place), and little acknowlegement that Aristotle was also "lost" for much of the middle ages, until Thomas Aquinas at least. There's still a lot to be done with the popular science vs. religion cliches. But as for history, this book could have used a little more organization and discipline in the middle ... like the periodic table itself gave to chemistry!

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