Mendeleev, Boehtlingk, and Panini

Paul Kiparsky kiparsky at csli.Stanford.EDU
Mon Sep 30 00:11:48 EDT 1996


In an earlier posting I conjectured that the Russian chemist Dimitri
Mendeleev knew enough about the Sivasutras to recognize their
resemblance to the periodic system of chemical elements that he had
discovered.  This would explain the puzzling fact that he gave
Sanskrit names to the unknown elements predicted by his periodic
system, an almost unique use of Sanskrit in systematic scientific
nomenclature: it was intended as acknowledgement of and homage to the
other great periodic system of science.

How could Mendeleev have found out about the Sivasutras?  It seems he
never studied Sanskrit --- he was far too busy for that --- but he
might have got his information through personal contact.  I am
grateful for the information provided by Wyzlic and Karttunen on the
St. Petersburg Sanskritists.  My best guess now is that Mendeleev's
source was Boehtlingk, the connaisseur and editor of Panini, who
worked at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences a few blocks from
Mendeleev's laboratory.  He was certainly aware of the beauty of
Panini's grammar, and I have now found evidence that he knew
Mendeleev.  A perusal of the Proceedings of the Academy shows that
Boehtlingk and Mendeleev must have known about each other's work at
least since 1861, and that they met in 1862, if not earlier.  Both
published articles in the Proceedings in 1861 (philology and natural
science were not in separate series then), and Mendeleev addressed the
Academy when he was awarded its prestigious Demidov prize for his book
Organic Chemistry, which had appeared in 1861, when Boehtlingk was on
the nomination committee for the prize.

In any case, the analogies between the two systems are striking.  Just
as Panini found that the phonological patterning of sounds in the
language is a function of their articulatory properties, so Mendeleev
found that the chemical properties of elements are a function of their
atomic weights.  Like Panini, Mendeleev arrived at his discovery
through a search for the "grammar" of the elements (using what he
called the principle of isomorphism, and looking for general formulas
to generate the possible chemical compounds).  Just as Panini arranged
the sounds in order of increasing phonetic complexity (e.g. with the
simple stops k,p... preceding the other stops, and representing all of
them in expressions like kU, pU) so Mendeleev arranged the elements in
order of increasing atomic weights, and called the first row (oxygen,
nitrogen, carbon etc.)  "typical (or representative) elements".  Just
as Panini broke the phonetic parallelism of sounds when the simplicity
of the system required it, e.g. putting the velar to the right of the
labial in the nasal row, so Mendeleev gave priority to isomorphism
over atomic weights when they conflicted, e.g. putting beryllium in
the magnesium family because it patterns with it even though by atomic
weight it seemed to belong with nitrogen and phosphorus.  In both
cases, the periodicities they discovered would later be explained by a
theory of the internal structure of the elements.

Paul Kiparsky




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