Biographies of Scientific Men/Mendeléeff

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IN the reign of Ivan IV., the Terrible (1555), the tribes east of the Urals came into collision with Russian colonists. A tendency to form invading expeditions into Siberia now began, and by 1650, in the reign of Alexis Romanof, Siberia was entirely incorporated into the Russian Empire. The surplus population of the dominions west of the Urals has since been gradually settling in Siberia; and, in addition, the system of severe repression which the empire has always maintained has served to people many districts with political exiles as well as convicts. To a large extent the Russian Government has also peopled Siberia by sending Cossacks to occupy the frontiers, and by subsidizing colonists of various descriptions; but the greater part of the Siberian population has been produced by immigration. Fur-hunting, escape from serfdom, from religious persecution, and from conscription, have been the main incentives to this great exodus—for despotism and servitude are deeply rooted in Russia. Whether the Duma will alter this state of affairs remains to be seen.

Biographies of Scientific Men 167 Mendeleev.jpg


We have many pictures of Russian life in Siberia drawn by capable writers—Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Stepniak, Lermontoff, Dostoieffsky, Tourgeneff, Kompert, Tikhomirov, and others—that little is required to describe it. It has been called the land "of persecution, stripes, murder, enforced penury and hunger, with debarred constitutional, social, and other rights." Will the Duma raise the people to the level of the masses of free countries, such as England and America?

The hero of this essay, Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeléeff (Men-de-lay-ef as the Russians call him, with the accent on the penultimate), was born on 7th February 1834, at Tobolsk, at the conjunction of the rivers Tobol and Irtish in Siberia, and in later years became one of the most famous of chemists. His father was Principal of the Tobolsk Gymnasium, and here the son was educated until he entered the University of St Petersburg, aided by funds provided by a benefactor. Even in the inhospitable region of Tobolsk, the Government of the Czars had established a gymnasium, and there the great philosopher began his education. Thence he went to St Petersburg, and as far back as 1856 he graduated as a doctor of chemistry. Later he studied, at Paris, under Adolphe Wurtz. For a short time he was a teacher at Simferopol in the Crimea; and at Odessa he practised as a chemist. In 1859 he went to Heidelberg, where he established a private laboratory and did excellent work. In 1861, however, he returned to St Petersburg (the present and fifth capital of "Holy Russia"), became Professor of Chemistry in the Technological Institute, and three years later was appointed to the same chair in the University of St Petersburg.

Mendeléeff is the first name of world-wide eminence that Siberia,[1] one of the largest countries of the globe, has produced.

In his early career Mendeléeff was a political economist, and no mean authority on kindred subjects, and his views were listened to by the Russian officials with the greatest respect. He was a firm supporter of autocracy and plutocracy. He had nothing of the Nihilist in his nature. Mendeléeff was tall and slim, and like many Russians had a long beard and a fine intellectual head. In his young days he was extremely reserved, and when seen in the streets of the Russian capital, he seemed buried in thought.

His lectures were fluent, forcible, and animated to such an extent that Mendeléeff was really a great orator. He held his audience spell-bound when discussing on chemistry.

Mendeléeff was a man of decided opinions of his own. Respected by the official classes in Russia, the police did not interfere with his laboratory, for he would not allow them—although university and other laboratories in Russia are under the control of the police.

Although of humble origin, by his loyalty to the house of Romanof, and his well-known political views, he enjoyed privileges which were denied to many of his fellow-professors and students.

Through influence, capitalists and others, Mendeléeff became rich, bought an estate near Moscow, and became scientific adviser to the Minister of Finance. He was a thrifty man, and disliked society—society was a bore to his philosophic brain and to his love of solitude. Scarcely any branch of chemistry is there, practical or philosophical, which his genius has not touched and adorned.

While he was engaged in writing the first edition of his celebrated Principles of Chemistry in 1868-70, the periodic law occurred to him, and in March 1869 he presented his views on the subject to the Physico-Chemical Society of Russia. His fame rests, and will rest for all time, on the famous periodic law of the elements. John Dalton had shown at the commencement of the nineteenth century that the elements of matter, when reduced to their smallest and indivisible forms, or atoms, combine in certain definite proportions, depending upon their weights. From Dalton's time onward some of the best work of savants was done in discovering as exactly as possible the weights of these atoms. This done, many laborious attempts were made, with only partial success, to link the atomic weights with the properties, etc., of the chemical elements. Newlands, De Chancourtois, Odling, Gmelin, and others made attempts to formulate the law, but success was left to the genius of Mendeléeff. He arranged the elements then known in series, standing in a sort of arithmetical progression according to their atomic weights, and chemical and physical properties. He says in his great work (loc. cit.) that "even the physical properties of selenium and its compounds, not to speak of their composition, determined by the group in which it occurs, may be foreseen with a close approach to reality from the properties of sulphur, tellurium, arsenic, and bromine. In this manner it is possible to foretell the properties of still unknown elements."

In the series some gaps presented themselves, and so great was Mendeléeff's confidence in the periodic law, that he at once predicted the discovery of new elements to fill these gaps. This was one of the most daring prophecies ever made in science—and in an exact science too, the science of weighing and measuring—but events have justified the seeming audacity.

In 1871 the prediction was made that three elements would be discovered having certain properties to fit into the gaps of Mendeléeff's table, and to these undiscovered elements the great Russian chemist gave the names, ekaboron, ekaaluminium, and ekasilicon. In 1875 Boisbaudran discovered gallium; in 1879 Nilson found scandium; and in 1886 Winkler isolated germanium: elements which exactly filled the vacant places or gaps in Mendeléeff's series. Even their properties were similar to those which had been foretold. The greatness of the periodic law enables the chemist to predict what elements will be discovered in the future, and what their chief properties will be, as well as to systematize the varying properties of the elements already known.

The periodic law may be enunciated as follows: "If the elements are arranged in the order of the numerical value of their atomic weights, their properties, physical and chemical, vary in recurrent or periodic manner." And while doing this, "the periodic law keeps before us the necessity of from time to time modifying our scheme of classification: it reminds us that a typical classification is of necessity temporary, but that just by reason of its elasticity it is suited to the present needs of the chemistry of solid and liquid substances."

The work of the Russian savant on the periodic law has been severely criticized; but what great discovery has not had fault-finders? "They wholly mistake the nature of criticism who think its business is principally to find fault" (Dryden). The law deals with atomic volumes, atomic weights, specific gravities, melting-points, magnetic properties, hydrocarbon radicles, etc.; in fact, a full list is to be found in the index of the Principles of Chemistry—a book which gives the views of Mendeléeff on most subjects. The work has been translated into nearly all the languages of Europe.

Concerning the element argon discovered by Lord Rayleigh and Sir William Ramsay, Mendeléeff wrote to the author on 18/30 March 1895, as follows:—

A mon avis l'argon (molécules) est au N3, formée l'azote N2 avec dédagement de chaleur, au A6, si A = 6·6 de 1re sérié. La première hypothèse est, pour moi, la plus probable, comme j'avais déjà communiqué dans la Société Chimique Russe.

When Mendeléeff delivered the Faraday Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1889, he said: "The law of periodicity enables us to perceive undiscovered elements at a distance, which formerly were inaccessible to chemical vision; and long ere they were discovered new elements appeared before our eyes possessed of a number of well-defined properties. … " Since then argon, helium, neon, xenon, metargon, krypton, radium, and possibly other forms of matter have been, and may be, discovered, throwing wondrous light on the structure of material things, but by no means invalidating Mendeléeff's famous periodic law—that is, as far as we know at the present time. It is possible that the law may be modified as time rolls on. The evolution or mutability of the elements may throw new light on the nature of the chemical element—the law of combination in simple proportions, and even the law of the conservation of matter (vide the researches of Curie, Kamsay, Landolt, and others).

In 1902, in a paper entitled "An Attempt towards a Chemical Conception of the Ether," he suggested the existence of two elements having a smaller atomic weight than that of hydrogen, and forming the first two members of the zero group, which comprised the chemically inactive, non-valent gases, helium, neon, argon, xenon, and kryton; and the first of these two elements he regarded as the ether. He suggested that it is an element having an atomic weight almost incomparably small compared with hydrogen, incapable of forming compounds, but possessing the property, owing to its small atomic weight and extremely high velocity of its atoms, of penetrating and pervading all other substances, just as argon and helium enter into and dissolve in water and other liquids, or hydrogen passes through platinum and palladium. He thinks that coronium, whose spectrum has been found in the solar corona, is one of these two elements, and the ether the other. Of coronium, Mendeléeff says that "it wanders, perhaps for ages, in the regions of space, breaks from the shackles of the earth, and again comes within its sphere, but still it cannot escape from the regions of the sun's attraction, and there are many heavenly bodies of greater mass than the sun."

In 1887 Mendeléeff worked on the nature of solutions, and he regarded them as "homogeneous liquid systems of unstable dissociating compounds of the solvent with the substance dissolved." This, he said, was one of the several possible hypotheses. He also worked on the laws of the expansion of gases at low tensions, and as far back as the year 1861 he reached the idea of the "absolute boiling-point" (the critical temperature of Andrews) as that temperature at which a liquid cannot exist as a liquid, but forms a gas that cannot pass into the liquid state under any pressure whatever, and at which the cohesion and the latent heat of evaporation are both nil.

His great book, The Principles of Chemistry, in two large volumes, is a philosophical treatise, and its footnotes occupy the greater part of the work.

In 1877 he published another book on the Naphtha Production in America and the Caucasus. This led to his journey to the petroleum fields of America at the expense of the Russian Government; and up to the time of his death he was the leading expert in all conferences on the mineral oil question in Russia.

Mendeléeff was an indefatigable worker, even down to the day of his death, and living only for science. When, in 1887, there was a total eclipse of the sun, he ascended in a balloon alone to make observations. Alone he effected dangerous alterations in the balloon valves, and wrote an account of his observations.

Although elected a member of almost every scientific academy and society in the world, he was black-balled by the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St Petersburg. This was due to jealousy and revenge! Once he had the honour to be consulted by the Russian Government regarding education, and he preferred one of his own to that of Count Tolstoy. The count's detectives followed him about for years, but found nothing against him. All the same, Tolstoy had him black-balled at the Academy! Later on in his career Mendeléeff refused the honour; but, as Miss Ellison says, "the best test of the value of a man's work is the reputation it has gained outside his own country."

Mendeléeff died on Saturday, 2nd February 1907—within five days of the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth.

The Czar Nicholas telegraphed to his widow: "Please accept my deepest sympathy in your terrible loss, which I also share. Russia has lost one of her best sons in the person of Professor Mendeléeff, who will ever remain in our memory."

Three days after the death of Mendeléeff, his colleague and friend, Professor N. Menschutkin, died. The news of Mendeléeff's death found him lecturing, and the sad tidings so affected him that he quitted the lecture theatre of the university at once, and in twenty-four hours he died suddenly.

In conclusion, Mendeleeff's whole writings are coloured by his views on the famous periodic law, and he says in the preface to The Principles of Chemistry, "that the entire scheme of the work is subjected to the law of periodicity."

Such is a short account of Russia's greatest chemist.

The rivers of Siberia, the native country of Mendeléeff, even in their lower latitudes, are ice-bound from the beginning of November to the beginning of May; and during the winter the smaller tributaries freeze to the bottom. … The grim story of political persecution and astounding cruelties as practised in "Holy Russia" revolt against humanity. The fiendish cruelty of the Russian soldier in flogging, kicking, and torturing prisoners is proverbial. The officer in charge of a convoy of prisoners on their way to Siberia "expresses the hope that the prisoners may suffer all the tortures of Hades for ever, and taste a fair sample of them even upon this earth."

And don't you whine, that in your youth
You had to bear the cold;
For, when you go to hell, forsooth,
You get it hot, I'm told.

This is the country where Mendeléeff was born, and lived the earlier portion of his existence. It may have had something to do in moulding his character—"dediscit animus sero quod didicit diu."

  1. Siberia covers 4,833,500 square miles—nearly forty times as great an area as that of the United Kingdom. Exile to Siberia began soon after the discovery of the country; and on an average, 20,000 persons are transported every year!