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Review: Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern

mendeleyevs dream

From ancient Greece through centuries of alchemy to the modern periodic table, Mendeleyev’s Dream traces the history of chemistry with fascinating mini-biographies.  We learn about Thales of Miletus who fell off a cliff while stargazing; Henning Brand who fermented and distilled vats of urine to isolate phosphorus, the first new element; Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, who introduced clear experimental write-ups to replace the secretive ones alchemists used;  Laviosier and his child bride Anne Marie who worked together in their personal lab until he was guillotined in the French Revolution; and of course, Mendeleyev, an irascible genius who discovered the periodic table—the structure of chemistry—in a dream.

We also learn about the elements themselves, progress in alchemy, the beginnings of modern chemistry, and the importance of ‘obvious’ ideas like precise measurements and consistent nomenclature. All this is presented against a background of interesting historical details.

So, if this well-written book is filled with informative vignettes about fascinating people, why do I dislike it? Its tone is unpleasant, and it contains far too much judgement, insinuation, and mockery.  Strathern is trained in philosophy and his cynicism about many of the great scientists and historical ideas seems to result from his atheistic and evolutionary worldview.

Written for adults, this book is also appropriate for high school students who can deal with the cynicism.  However, I’m hoping there are better histories of chemistry out there. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean is next on my list, partly because Miss 16 really enjoyed it for her required science reading.

This is the kind of book I would recommend for your teen’s science and math reading, although with this particular book I would recommend discussion of the author’s worldview

This is yet another book in the in the 2014 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Finishing Strong , and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from our library and am not compensated for sharing my opinions with you.


  1. Carol says:

    I look forward to reading your review on The Disappearing Spoon. Disappointing about the book above. It sounded really good until you got the part where you explained why you disliked it!

    1. Annie Kate says:

      It is really good, in one sense. In another sense it was a colossal disappointment. So far The Disappearing Spoon seems OK, but it requires more of a chemistry background. I’m aiming to have a review up in October.

  2. Jenn says:

    This sounds like something my oldest would like to read!

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Great! Just be careful, because the author does make quite a few snide comments about faith, both Christian and others, and about Christian values.

  3. Amy says:

    And it sounded so promising! Thanks for your honest review!

  4. Sherry says:

    It did sound promising. That’s the second book I’ve read about today that seems to have been spoiled by the author’s need to to tell us how sophisticated and above all that Christianity stuff he is.

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