January 01, 2014

The Suitcase Maker's Dream



The Suitcase Maker's Dream

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.


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