What is the world ether made of? The last theory of Mendeleev

In March 1869, the first version of Mendeleev’s periodic system was published. She acquired a systematic view of rows and groups in a couple of years – this is what the version from 1871 looked like. As you know (which I already mentioned in the article about the limits of the periodic table and the Feynmanium element). Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) fundamentally surpassed his teachers and colleagues, in particular, Robert Bunsen, Jean Lecoq Boisbaudran and Lothar Mayer, in that he tried not only to classify the chemical elements already known by that time, but also to arrange them in accordance with an increase in atomic weight and a periodic pattern of chemical properties. Therefore, he not only left empty cells in his table, but also made two exceptions to the periodic law based on the elements known to him. Nevertheless, Mendeleev had a very wrong idea of ​​how to fill in the “edges” of the table. Mendeleev’s mistakes, in which he even persisted, were connected with two incorrect premises. First, Mendeleev took seriously the concept world ether (wrote a serious analytical article about him in 1902), although, back in 1887, he was repeatedly staged Michelson-Morley experiment, which actually proved that the ether does not exist. In addition, at the time the table was compiled, the internal structure of the atom was not yet known (the atom was considered indivisible), and Mendeleev did not provide for the 8th group in the table, that is, a column with noble gases.

Mendeleev considered it logical that the table should “close” at the junction of groups opposite in properties: alkali metals (oxidation state, as a rule, -1) and halogens (oxidation state, as a rule, +7). That is why, inspired by the first success, Mendeleev tried to complete the table with such stretches and find a place in it for the world ether. All these searches, which were undertaken not only by Mendeleev, led to the “discovery” of many phantom, non-existent elements.

Atomic weight and other low-level arrangement of elements

In the groups of elements that Mendeleev arranged in a table, the affinity of chemical properties in the vertical direction was already traced. In the upper right corner of the table, most non-metals were grouped, but individual non-metals and semi-metals (arsenic, antimony, tellurium, iodine) are also in the lower rows of the table. It was in the pair of tellurium and iodine that Mendeleev made the first exception to the increase in atomic mass, but in favor of the periodic law: iodine turned out to be lighter than tellurium, but in terms of chemical properties, tellurium obviously approached sulfur and selenium, and not bromine and chlorine – on the contrary, more similar to iodine.

Here Mendeleev took the first step towards understanding the divisibility of the atom: in most cells of the periodic system there are several types of atoms in which the number of protons is the same (the number of protons is equal to the number in the table), but the number of neutrons is different. Accordingly, on average, tellurium is dominated by atoms with a large number of neutrons, and iodine – with a small number. The concept of isotopes only in 1913 formulated Frederic Soddy (1877-1956), as brilliantly described in his Nobel lecture in 1922.

By the middle of the 19th century, when uranium (1789) and thorium (1828) had long been discovered, there was not the slightest idea about radioactivity (accidentally discovered by Antoine Henri Becquerel in 1896 – samples of uranium in his desk drawer lit up a photographic film on which lay). Radioactivity is due to the instability of some atomic nuclei and only indirectly depends on the severity of the isotopes. Indeed, the last element to have a stable isotope is lead (atomic mass 208, atomic number 82). Until the beginning of the 21st century, bismuth (atomic number 83) was considered as such, but in 2003 it was proventhat bismuth-209 is also radioactive turns into thallium-205, but the half-life of this isotope is orders of magnitude longer than the current age of the universe.

Since Mendeleev did not know about the existence of isotopes at the time of creating his table, he also did not fully understand what kind of elements could be between hydrogen (atomic mass 1.008) and lithium (atomic mass 6.939). He believed that hydrogen gives rise to a full-fledged zero period of the table and, perhaps, one or several elements that make up the world ether will be in this period. Already in 1902, Mendeleev wrote a detailed article “An attempt at a chemical understanding of the world ether“. In the article, he defines ether as “a weightless, elastic fluid that fills space, penetrates all bodies and is recognized by physicists as the cause of light, heat, electricity, etc.” In this article, he is already trying to reconcile the concept of the world ether with the already discovered radioactivity and compares atoms with “vortex rings”, and not with solid indivisible “grains”, as John Dalton, who discovered atoms in 1809, imagined them. Nevertheless, Mendeleev “received” indirect evidence of the existence of the ether already in the late 1860s. He also mentions this in the article. Below I will return to this article, since in it Mendeleev expresses visionary ideas about the nature of elementary particles.

In 1868, the prominent American scientist Norman Lockyer, founder of the journal Nature, opened in the solar spectrum, a new element with previously unknown emission lines, which he called “helium”. In the versions of the periodic table, neither from 1869 nor from 1871 (given above), helium is not indicated, since Dmitry Ivanovich had no idea which group it should be assigned to. All matter on the Sun exists in the form of an ionized gas, so it was difficult to imagine what helium is at room temperature from the spectral line alone. But in the aforementioned article, Mendeleev already mentions both the properties of helium (in 1881 Luigi Palmieri isolated from the gas of volcanic fumaroles, later obtained by Swedish chemists in an amount sufficient to establish the atomic weight), and the properties of argon – discovered by William Ramsay in 1894 in during the successive freezing of air. Mendeleev points out that both helium and argon have a pronounced chemical “inactivity”, that is, they do not enter into chemical compounds with other known elements. Not fully understanding the structure of the atom, Mendeleev assumed that helium is not the beginning of the eighth group (noble gases with a completely filled outer electron shell), but the end of the zero period, followed by hydrogen.

Lockyer’s discovery stimulated other scientists to direct the spectroscope into the sky and look for new elements there, obviously of a “different” nature than the “earths” and metals that were discovered at the end of the 19th century with the help of mineralogy. Misunderstanding of the nature of electron shells (the electron was discovered only in 1898), as well as misunderstanding of what exactly makes up the atomic weight of an “indivisible” atom, led to several notable pseudo-discoveries. The most famous of these is the “element” coronium. Lines of this “element” were discovered in 1869 in the solar corona by William Harkness and Charles Young. By 1887, the scientific community had refuted the “skeptical opinions” that the discovered element was highly ionized iron atoms – and it was called “coronium”. Moreover, in 1898 the Italian scientist Raffaello Nasini even stated that isolated coronium from the fumaroles of Vesuvius – thus continuing to point to its resemblance to helium.

Mendeleev seized on the idea of ​​a coronium, since it seemed that the zero period of the table had begun to be completed. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, he believed that helium should be lighter than hydrogen and have a fractional atomic weight. But, when the atomic weight of helium was corrected (4.00), Mendeleev admitted that coronium is a noble gas that is located above helium, and its mass is about 0.4 of hydrogen. Mendeleev also suggested that to the left of coronium there should be another chemically neutral element with a fractional mass (about 0.17), which he called “newtonium”:

“… in the last modification of the distribution of elements in groups and rows, I add not only the zero group, but also the zero row, and the element x (I would like to tentatively call it “newtonium” – in honor of the immortal Newton), which I decide to consider, firstly, the lightest of all elements, both in density and atomic weight, secondly, the fastest moving gas, thirdly, the least capable of forming with any other atoms or particles certain strong connections, and, fourthly, an element that is everywhere widespread and all penetrating, like the world ether

Here is what the periodic table looked like in the appendix to this article, a copy of 1905 (sorry for the quality):

Here, the Ramsey noble gases are on the left rather than the right edge of the table. Also, a zero period and the first period with hydrogen are provided here, where a cell for a noble gas is left to the left of hydrogen. Probably, Mendeleev denotes coronium through x, and newtonium through y. At the same time, the elements that make up the world ether should be located in the zero period.

The search for unusual “heavenly” elements continued into the 20th century.

One of the most notable “finds” of this kind was nebuliumwhose “discovery” in the emission lines of diffuse nebulae in 1898 was reported by Margaret Huggins. The atomic weight of nebulium was assumed to be about 2.74; accordingly, this element should have been located between hydrogen (1) and helium (4) and be something like “superoxygen”.

Also noteworthy in this series are protoftor (an “ultralight halogen”, presumably located in the zero period above fluorine) and, in particular, neutronium. Neutronium was theoretically predicted in 1926 by the German chemist Andreas von Antropoff. Antropoff suggested that this element should have a weight of about 0.1 of the weight of hydrogen, practically not enter into chemical compounds and be at the same time all-pervading.


The era of these strange discoveries was almost over by the early 1930s. In 1932, James Chadwick discovered neutronin 1928 Paul Dirac suggested the existence positron, and in the same 1932, the existence of the positron was confirmed by the American physicist Carl Anderson. The 1930s were the first key period in which the mechanisms of radioactivity were studied, and in 1936 the fission of the uranium nucleus was discovered.

It became clear that there are no chemical elements with a fractional mass. Practical and theoretical study of isotopes made it possible to understand that the nucleus of an atom, consisting of protons and neutrons, is not a point, but has a certain configuration. It was this awareness that made it possible to fill in the last two cells in the main part of the periodic table (before uranium). These were technetium (No. 43, discovered in Italy in 1937) and promethium (No. 61, discovered in the USA in 1945-1946).

Nevertheless, the historical digression made makes me think that the described hypotheses of Mendeleev and other chemists of the 19th century led not so much to the inevitable debunking of the theory of the world ether and the final clarification of the upper limit of the periodic system of elements, but to the anticipation of elementary particles. Indeed, matter can exist in the form of particles comparable in size and mass to a hydrogen atom (proton), but at the same time inert. Newtonium is like a neutron, and neutronium is like a neutrino; by the way, for neutronium, the property of penetration through any substances was even hypothetically indicated, which neutrinos are so famous. Moreover, it is already known that free neutrons have a half-life of about 10 minutes. There is also a hypothesis that free neutrons can combine into a kind of “isotopes” – dineutrons, trineutrons, and especially tetraneutrons; there is evidence that such exotic particles could be experimentally obtained in 2016.

Scattered scientific errors and wishful thinking can rarely coalesce into something like a new scientific theory. But Mendeleev’s desperate attempts to discover the world ether and conceptualize the world ether may have led him to ideas that could anticipate the discoveries of Rutherford, Dirac, Fermi and a huge part of physics, not chemistry, of the 20th century.

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