Today is the Day of the Chemists!
Today we celebrate all the eggheads who mix things up in test tubes and make the world a better place to be! The most famous Russian chemist is Dmitry Mendeleev, whom we last saw trying to get Russia to adopt the metric system. Mendeleev came up with the Periodic Table of Elements, a systematic grouping of the elements by atomic weight. He claims to have seen it in a dream, and then wrote it down. He won the Nobel Prize and all kinds of other cool stuff, like having the Periodic Table etched into the wall of a house he used to live in. I wonder if, in his wildest dreams, Mendeleev could have imagined the popularity of the Periodic Table as a shower curtain. Seems unlikely.
Alexei Soloviev, the COO of The Bank I used to work for, and I spent one rather dull winter week, trying to come up with a list of ten things Russia had invented or given the world. It was the week we both discovered Wikipedia. We had incredibly high standards: for example, the Kalashnikov rifle didn’t qualify because you had to have invented the firearm, which Russia didn’t do. We looked at space exploration, but the French were responsible for coming up with the original technology for that, and if you don’t count that, then you have to give it to Italy since Leonardo da Vinci had some pretty definitive drawings. We looked at vodka, which was invented by the Swedes, although our buddy Mendeleev was responsible for answering his country’s call by coming up with the chemical “standard” for vodka. We had the radio screaming match. We looked at a number of things, which are useful to mankind, that were invented by Russians who emigrated to other countries, such as helicopters and television, which I ruled out as possible entrants. That’s like saying Maria Sharapova is a Russian tennis player, about which Alexei and I had a heated argument, which I eventually won. Of course, Maria Sharapova isn’t a Russian tennis player…how silly is that?
This is the kind of argument one does best to avoid with Russians. They are the first to tell you just how truly useless their country is, but suggest that Maria Sharapova is not a Russian tennis player and they go ballistic. They moan and groan about how badly things are run, but throw a national conniption fit when their gold medalist figure skater doesn’t win another gold medal and behaves badly in public. A Russian can bore you to death with all the reasons why the government is going to hell in a handbag, but just you try to suggest that other countries took part in the Victory Over Fascism and you find yourself feeling like you’ve done 16 rounds with a heavyweight.
I did finally give Alexei these points: Russia did invent the musical synthesizer, chromatography, and synthetic rubber.
But the big contribution remains the shower curtain. Russia definitely gave the world The Periodic Table of Elements. Although to be scrupulously fair, it did take an American mathematics professor to make it a real hit:
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.
~ Tom Lehrer
Happy Chemists’ Day to Russian Chemists everywhere!
I welcome your thoughts…if you know of any other contributions to world culture, science, know-how or that ilk, please leave me a comment below.