Mendeleyev, a grumpy genius

"What science sows, people will harvest."

Today, 185 years ago, Dmitri Mendeleyev was born, known primarily for having the clear vision of grouping chemical elements according to their atomic weight and properties, and elaborating the first version of the Periodic Table, formed at that time by 63 elements. However, his genius lies not only in this idea but also in many other things such as his intuition, since he predicted that there were missing elements to be discovered and he left some gaps in it to introduce them in the future by predicting the properties they should have. As it happens, in 2018 scientists from Japan advanced in the press that in a few years could synthesize the chemical element 119, creating a new row in the table to accommodate it. This new element has been christened temporarily as aunennio. 

Mendeleyev was born into a cultured and astonishingly numerous family, as it is known that he was the youngest of at least 17 siblings. Soon after his birth, his father became blind and his mother, the mother who gave birth and raised 17 children, as far as we know, also had to take the reins of the family economy by running the glass factory founded by his grandfather. After a series of misfortunes, including the death of the father or the fire that would destroy the factory, the visionary mother bet on investing her savings in Dmitri's education, which pointed to ways of genius, instead of rebuilding the factory. Fortunately for his son, this investment finally paid off.

However, his beginnings were not easy: after traveling at the age of 15, they say that on horseback with his mother and two brothers, he was denied entry into the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg because of his Siberian origin. A very interesting fact as years later, due to his high capacity, he would end up working as a professor in the latter for about twenty years. He began his studies at the Pedagogical Institute of St. Petersburg, his mother dying of tuberculosis a few months later. But she had already planted the germ of a genius. As they say, in her last words she sang to Dmitri: "Refrain the chimeras, insist on work and not on words, patiently seek the scientific and divine truths". She understood that dialectical methods often betray and that science eliminates all superstition, lies and error, and brings with it the certainty of truths not yet discovered. A certainly inspiring woman!

In contrast to his obsession with arranging the elements in their proper order, Mendeleyev's personal life was rather hectic. He was forced to marry a woman he did not love and as soon as he was able to leave, he divorced her with the intention of marrying the one he really loved, a woman 26 years younger. None of this is out of the ordinary in these days, but in those times Mendeleyev was branded as liberal and scandalous and many doors were closed to him. In fact, he was accused of bigamist, as soon as he divorced his first wife did not wait the seven years of celibacy required by Russian law and married his beloved and was tried for it. However, he escaped gracefully as the penalty fell on the poor parish priest who officiated at the marriage.

While all this was taking place, he had already become known as an international scientific eminence, and not only for his contribution to Chemistry with the Periodic Table: his many contributions to various subjects might seem anecdotal in comparison with the previous one, but they are very important for history. However, as a result of his liberal ideas, he did not receive the recognition he deserved in Russia and was never admitted to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He had a reputation for bad character and stubbornness. It is said that while working, he shouted, groaned and grunted. When this reached his ears, Dmitri replied that this was how he protected himself against disease and remained free from ulcers. His obstinacy was so great that he set out on a solitary balloon journey to study a solar eclipse. The flight was planned for him and a pilot. However, it rained, spoiling all plans. In spite of this, Mendeleyev took out the pilot and everything in the basket and undertook the journey only so that nothing would get in the way of his endeavour. Scientifically, this trip did not bear fruit as he failed to fly over the clouds, but his feat was so valiant that the French Academy of Meteorology awarded him a medal.

He also contributed to the construction of Russia's first oil refinery, presented the first theories on the origin of oil and predicted that it would become a key component in the world economy. He made great contributions to shipbuilding, participating in the design of the first Arctic icebreaker. He found the idea of exploring the northern territories of Russia and making them accessible very attractive. In addition, he encouraged the use of fertilizers in agriculture, putting them into practice also on his own land, and invented several instruments including a device to measure the density of liquids. But another curious contribution, of which there are no records, is that Mendeleyev had much to do with the history of vodka. The emblematic Russian spirit was distilled in a homemade way, obtaining a concoction whose alcoholic graduation oscillated between 10 and 50 degrees, without any type of standardization. The chemist discovered that the appropriate alcohol content was 40, since in this way the heat produced in the mouth was the minimum and maintained its maximum flavor without producing dryness. Since then, Russian vodka has officially had a mandatory graduation of 40 degrees, something that has been voluntarily imitated by manufacturers of other distillates such as whisky, rum or gin from all over the world.

Mendeleyev came close to winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a circumstance that in the end was cut short. Bad tongues say it was the influence of Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who had won the prize for physics three years earlier, in 1903. Apparently, in revenge for the public criticism of his theory of electrolytic dissociation by Dmitri, he did everything in his power to convince certain members of the Swedish Academy to decline in their idea of awarding him the prize. One year after this recognition of his work was truncated, the scientist died, and did so without knowing that in 1955 the chemical element of atomic number 101 was named mendelevio (Md), in his honor.

By Inés Pérez Martín

Dmitri Mendeléyev