“The Rise of Chemical Russian: Periodic Priority and Translated Tables”

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A talk by Michael Gordin

The periodic system of chemical elements is quite possibly the most omnipresent icon of modern science and is certainly ubiquitous in all of contemporary chemistry, easily locatable in literally every chemistry textbook and the vast majority of chemical classrooms. Credit for the discovery of this system has been a contentious topic of discussion since the 1860s, when it was first formulated by (depending on how you count) up to six independent discoverers. This talk explored aspects of the priority dispute over the periodic table between its two main claimants, St. Petersburg chemist Dmitrii I. Mendeleev (1834–1907) and Julius Lothar Meyer (1830–1895); first it interrogated the category of “priority” in general and then examined the specific role this debate played in the catapulting of the Russian language from a negligible mode of scientific communication to a significant language alongside English, French, and German as languages of chemistry in the late 19th century.

Michael Gordin specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences and Russian history, and currently serves as the director of the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies at Princeton University. He has published articles on a variety of topics, such as the introduction of science into Russia in the early 18th century, the history of biological warfare in the late Soviet period, the relations between Russian literature and science, as well as a series of studies on the life and chemistry of Dmitrii I. Mendeleev, formulator of the periodic system of chemical elements. In 2011 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and was named a Guggenheim Fellow. Gordin came to Princeton in 2003 after earning his A.B. (1996) and his Ph.D. (2001) from Harvard University, and serving a term at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

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