Monday, September 28, 2009

101. Mendelevium


The Feast of Saint Mendeleyev

Every year on March 1, chemists around the world celebrate the feast day of Dimitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev, the Father of the Periodic Table.

Prodigiously intelligent, Mendeleyev was almost denied a university education by his Siberian birth. Fortunately for science, his determined mother took him first to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, where she finally found a school that would take him. He graduated with a gold medal for excellence in scholarship and went on to study in Paris and Heidelberg. As a professor of chemistry, back in St. Petersburg, he could find no textbook worth teaching and so wrote his own. This led him to ponder deeply the relationships between elements and how they best might be organized.

Mendeleyev's breakthrough insight on March 1, 1869 (February 17 in the old calendar), that the elements should be sorted by their valences, took an unruly mass of empirical data and turned it into a powerful tool of analysis and prediction. The importance of the periodic table to chemistry can be judged by the fact that his earliest version of it had three gaps where elements should exist but so far as anyone knew did not. All three of these elements were subsequently detected and found to possess the properties Mendeleyev had predicted for them.

In keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, the Feast of Saint Mendeleyev is a day of fasting and abstinence. Not a chemist anywhere in the world will touch more than a morsel of food or a few sips of water from sunup to sundown. Their mien is somber. They think serious thoughts.

After dark, of course, that all changes. Out come the picnic baskets and wine bottles. Toasts are made, and laughter sparkles to the sky. Then everybody goes outside, and they proceed to blow things up. They're chemists, after all—it's what they do for fun!

Mendeleyev could have predicted it.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.


  1. As an Orthodox Guy, I can totally see this happening. And as an Iconographer, I *might* have to make the icon of St. Mendeleyev.