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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 27 February 2024

Not Mendeleyev’s Dream

To reduce the “content load” on students post-pandemic, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has shaved off the periodic table from the Class X science text

Upala Sen Published 04.06.23, 04:38 AM

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Now that’s something Mendeleyev would never have dreamt of. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleyev, a professor of chemistry at St. Petersburg University, Russia, struggled to arrange the chemical elements --- 63 of them --- in a manner that would make sense. In Mendeleyev’s Dream, Paul Strathern writes, “They [the chemical elements] were the alphabet out of which the language of the universe was composed… The discovery of a structure here would do for chemistry what Newton had done for physics and Darwin for biology. It would reveal the blueprint of the universe.” Along with the periodic table, the NCERT has also lopped off Darwin’s theory of evolution from Class IX and Class X texts. Newton has been retained so far, perhaps out of deference to gravity.

‘A rationalisation exercise’

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Mendeleyev came up with the periodic table on February 17, 1869. After many years of work and much thinking and that day’s game of patience, an exhausted Mendeleyev had fallen asleep. It has been chronicled how he slept and dreamt of a table where all the elements had fallen into place. He woke up and wrote it down. The paring down of NCERT textbooks has been called a “rationalisation exercise”. Who knows the rationalists at NCERT may have come to the conclusion that Mendeleyev did not sweat enough to arrive at the periodic table, merely dreamt it, and such dreamings had no place in school texts?

The Principles of Chemistry

In The Periodic Table: Its Story And Its Significance, Eric R. Scerri calls the periodic table “one of the most powerful icons in science: a single document that captures the essence of chemistry in an elegant pattern”. Here’s the thing, the periodic table is not about Mendeleyev alone. It is not about the elements alone either. It is about fundamentals. It is about centuries of scientific inquiry. It is about the human imagination and a culmination of the natural curiosity of several individuals about the workings of the universe. The periodic table is also a philosophy. To equate it as “content load” reveals a mindset that has not been able to grasp any of these things. By the way, that February evening nearly one-and-a-half centuries ago, when Mendeleyev dreamt of the periodic table, he had been a man anxious and in a hurry. You see, he was trying to complete the second volume of a textbook for schoolchildren --- The Principles of Chemistry.

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