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19 September 2018

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The Suitcase Maker's Dream

Author: Svetlana Zernes
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

Jan/Feb 2014
Page 23   ( 3 pages)

Summary: A look back at the amazing, and eccentric, Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleyev, inventor of the Periodic Table.


Was he a Nobel Laureate? No, although today awards and prizes are bestowed in his honor. Was he admitted into the Russian Academy of Sciences? Also no, although these days research institutes, universities, streets, cities, and even a crater on the moon are named after him. Yet ask any Russian, young or old: Who was Russia’s greatest scientist? They will all give the same answer: Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev.

All geniuses wind up being the subject of anecdotes. Truly great geniuses even have their own mythology.

One myth about Mendeleyev is that he came up with the ideal proof for vodka – 80 (40 percent alcohol by volume), a myth very popular with Russians and actually not so far-fetched. The fact of the matter is that Dmitry Ivanovich did defend a doctoral dissertation in 1865 titled, “On Combining Spirits with Water.” However his interest in this subject was purely scientific: the molecules in this solution arranged themselves quite beautifully. In reality, as far back as a couple of centuries before Mendeleyev defended his dissertation, a 76-proof grain distillate known as polugar was already common, and by 1843 the 80-proof standard was adopted to combat those trying to evade the rather hefty taxes levied on spirits. People probably just liked the idea of a great scientist sharing their basic human proclivities.

“Even for me it’s surprising – what didn’t I do over the course of my scientific life?” Mendeleyev once reflected. Indeed, he did a lot, and all of it successfully. Natural resources, metallurgy, agronomy, economics, meteorology, flour milling – this is just a partial list of all the fields that captivated him. One moment he was flying high in a hot air balloon to observe an eclipse, and the next he was sewing himself a suit with a vast number of conveniently placed pockets. St. Petersburg street clocks were installed on his initiative. In fact, only about ten percent of his numerous scientific works were devoted to the field for which he is best known – chemistry.

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