Dmitri Mendeleev, 1834-1907

Dmitri Mendeleev

1834 - 1907
by David F. Coppedge

Every science student is familiar with the Periodic Table of the Elements. It is one of the great “patterns” in nature discovered by careful, painstaking work in chemistry by many scientists over many years. The one who is most famous for putting the pieces together in a systematic way is Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist from the late 19th century. Many have heard of Mendeleev, and know his connection to the periodic table, but few realize that confidence in Biblical creation stimulated his scientific work.

It’s appropriate that our January 2019 Creation Scientist of the Month honor Dimitri Mendeleev, who made his periodic table in 1869. Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry at the University of Hull, points out the timely connection in his article on The Conversation:

The periodic table  stares down from the walls of just about every chemistry lab. The credit for its creation generally goes to Dimitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who in 1869 wrote out the known elements (of which there were 63 at the time) on cards and then arranged them in columns and rows according to their chemical and physical properties. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this pivotal moment in science, the UN has proclaimed 2019 to be the International year of the Periodic Table.

Mendeleev’s Childhood

The following quote is taken from Pioneer Explorers of Intelligent Design: Scientists Who Made a Difference by Dr. Donald DeYoung (BMH Books, 2006), p. 67.

One of 17 children, Mendeleev was told by his mother to “patiently search divine and scientific truth.” He firmly believed in Scripture, especially Proverbs 25:2 which says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the honor of kings to search out a matter.” Mendeleev thus saw chemistry as a royal and godly pursuit. He was led to seek out the underlying order to the atomic elements based on their weights and other properties. In Mendeleev’s funeral procession in St. Petersburg, Russia, his appreciative students carried a large banner displaying the periodic table of the elements.

Coming from a religious family, Mendeleev naturally viewed the world as an orderly system amenable to scientific investigation. It is said he first got the idea of the periodic table in a dream, and the next day began working out the pattern. As he was building the table, his belief that the pattern he saw emerging would continue led him to take the intellectual leap of leaving spots blank in the table, in faith believing that elements would be discovered to fill the blank spots. He predicted the existence of gallium, germanium and scandium, for instance, and even was able to predict some their properties by interpolating from other known elements in similar positions on the table.

The Periodic Table

The story of the discovery of the periodic table is told in detail in A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt (IVP Academic, 2006). They use it as one of many illustrations from history of how the arts and sciences reveal the underlying genius and meaning in nature. On page 143, they write,

Mendeleev’s original periodic table (Wikimedia Commons). Notice the question marks where gaps showed no known element.

Mendeleev shuffled through cards. On each card, he put the chemical element and all its known properties, including the way it combined with hydrogen and oxygen. As is the case for pattern-loving creatures, he could not believe that nature would contain simply a pile of unordered elements, like so many randomly strewn playing cards. Surely there must be some elegant relationship. He worked and reworked the cards and noticed that, when they were arranged according to increasing atomic weight, a pattern began to emerge–the chemical recurred periodically, that is, regularly. That led him to place them in vertical columns, which he labeled Group I, Group II and so on, up to Group VII. Believing that nature loves patterns as well, Mendeleev refused to allow that the pattern of increasing weights would be disrupted. Thus, when there was no known element that had the requisite to fit into a particular group or when there was a suspicious leap in atomic weight, he boldly left a blank. Even more boldly, he predicted that elements would be discovered to fill these blanks and, also, that they would have so-and-so properties and such-and-such atomic weights.

Dr Lorch acknowledges that Mendeleev had predecessors who had tried to organize the elements, such as John Dalton, who had created symbols for the elements (that didn’t catch on), and John Newlands, who had tried to arrange elements by their properties.

Mendeleev’s genius was in what he left out of his table. He recognised that certain elements were missing, yet to be discovered. So where Dalton, Newlands and others had laid out what was known, Mendeleev left space for the unknown. Even more amazingly, he accurately predicted the properties of the missing elements.

Good science should make bold predictions. Here was a great example. With faith in the orderliness of nature. Mendeleev launched a  search for new elements, some of which he did not survive to learn about. Lorch writes,

Notice the question marks in his table above? For example, next to Al (aluminium) there’s space for an unknown metal. Mendeleev foretold it would have an atomic mass of 68, a density of six grams per cubic centimetre and a very low melting point. Six years later Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, isolated gallium and sure enough it slotted right into the gap with an atomic mass of 69.7, a density of 5.9g/cm³ and a melting point so low that it becomes liquid in your hand. Mendeleev did the same for scandium, germanium and technetium (which wasn’t discovered until 1937, 30 years after his death).

Mendeleev’s predictions continue today. The website for the International Year of the Periodic Table says, “The four most recent elements (113, 115, 117 and 118) were fully added into the Periodic Table, with the approval of their names and symbols, on 28 November 2016.”

Lorch shows in his article that there are other ways to organize the periodic table, but the following is the most commonly used today. Regardless of the diagram used, each shows an orderly pattern and system in nature. He calls the periodic table “the iconic symbol of science.

Wiker and Witt in A Meaningful World comment, “If we compare [Mendeleev’s] table to our current periodic table, it is wonderfully accurate (especially if we correct for the confusion caused by the transition elements).”

Creation as a Stimulus for Science

Mendeleev’s story emphasizes the power of faith in a wise Creator to advance science. Here, the “iconic symbol of science” came about through one man’s confidence that nature was not chaotic, but orderly. Wiker and Witt compare the pursuit of science like a cosmic Easter egg hunt:

One can imagine being the designer of the table and feeling like a human father who has cleverly hidden an Easter egg and is watching his children searching diligently, uncovering first one clue and then another, getting closer and closer and temporarily grinding to a halt, flummoxed—all the while the surprise is hidden right under their noses.

It was left to the great Russian, Dimitri Mendeleev, to actually seize the egg, so to speak, to take the next bold step, for which he is credited with having finally cracked the code of the periodic table of the elements (at least in regard to its general structure). Wiker, p. 143.

After Dmitri’s death, element 101 was named Mendelevium in his honor. A crater on the moon also bears his name.

I can remember my father, a Biblical pastor with a deep interest in science and love of nature, using this same Easter egg hunt analogy. He reveled in the wonders of nature, and loved to search out the reasons for things. He was so deeply intrigued about the properties of atoms and molecules, and how it could be that adding one proton to an element changed its character so completely, that he pursued a second career and earned a Master’s in chemistry. He was also one of the early writers to use the phrase “intelligent design” in his book, Evolution: Possible or Impossible?, in 1973. The point is that belief in creation is a powerful stimulus for science, provoking the search for meaning and patterns in the otherwise mind-boggling array of natural phenomena presented to our senses. Mendeleev’s discovery is a prime example.