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Hank introduces us to the man behind the periodic table - the brilliant Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.

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When I was growing up as a young nerd, I had this above my bed on the ceiling, so that I could gaze at it every single night - which is REALLY nerdy. We have that amazing piece of logical scientific arrangement because of this man. And, no, that is not Rasputin. But he was another kinda crazy, brilliant Russian. This is Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, and he's responsible, more than anyone, for coming up with the original periodic table of elements. So he deserves more than 15 minutes of fame, but we're only gonna give him three.


Mendeleev was born in Siberia in 1834, as the youngest of between 11 and 17 siblings - no one is quite sure. This is just, this is a bad lot in life. And he almost died as a teenager of tuberculosis. But lucky for us, he survived, and also lucky for us, his mom put all of her faith into this one child and sent him to St. Petersburg to study and become a scientist. He went on to become a professor in St. Petersburg, his dissertation was called "On the Combinations of Water and Alcohol," and I know that sounds really boring, but it's going to come in handy.

Between 1868 and 1870 was when Mendeleev was writing his seminal work, "The Principles of Chemistry." And that's when he came up with his most influential idea, the periodic law. The theory was that if you arranged elements by similar properties, and by atomic weight, they would appear periodically, in rows. This may sound familiar. He illustrated this in the rudimentary, but revolutionary periodic table of all known elements at the time, there were about 60, and it looked like this. Not exactly what's hanging in your chemistry class, but if you flip it 90 degrees, you can see the origins of the period table of the elements.

Just one of the amazing things about Mendeleev's discovery here is that he discovered it 25 years before the discovery of the electron. At the time, everyone in the world of science knew that the atom was the most basic particle. So, determining the weight of an element basically consisted of figuring out how heavy it was compared with the lightest element, which was hydrogen. Still is hydrogen. Only later would scientists figure out a more precise measure, the atomic weight, which takes into account the protons, the neutrons, and the electrons in the atom. 
But here's what I like most about Mendeleev, not only did he arrange electrons by their atomic weight - anybody can do that. But he also spotted holes in the table, and he theorized that those atoms, those elements, would be discovered someday. And he postulated, like, with enormous accuracy the properties of those elements. Of the 10 elements Mendeleev predicted in his first table, seven were eventually discovered. 

This achievement quickly won Mendeleev some clout, including some clout in his personal life. In the 1880's, Mendeleev became obsessed with his niece's best friend, and he threatened to kill himself unless she married him. The problem was that he was already married. So he divorced his first wife, and married his niece's friend - which, according to the Russian Orthodox church was bigamy. When critics accused Mendeleev of this moral crime, Tsar Alexander reportedly said, "Well, Mendeleev has two wives, but I only have one Mendeleev."

Yeah, so, with the Tsar on his side, he was then made the director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, where his job was to come up with the official standards for the production of vodka. Thanks to him, all Russian vodka, to this day, has to be exactly 40% alcohol. He also pioneered the study of petroleum, and helped found Russia's first oil refinery. Probably the only exports Russia has now that this guy didn't help with are caviar and hip-hop polka.

In 1906, Mendeleev was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his periodic law, but he had managed to piss off an influential Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, by publicly criticizing some of Arrhenius' theories - the Swede returned the favor by lobbying hard against him on the Nobel committee, and he was denied the prize. 

Mendeleev died the following year of influenza, having mastered the elements, and petroleum, and alcohol, and even bigamy. He didn't get the Nobel Prize. But in the end, he did get an even more prestigious scientific honor, and that is having a chemical element named after him. It's one of the new, synthetic ones, and yes, it's super radioactive - it's called Mendelevium.

Thank you for watching, as always. We also did an episode on the periodic table, if you wanna learn more about that. You can connect with us on Facebook and Twitter, or in the YouTube comments if you have questions of suggestions for us. We'll see you next time.