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Did the Sanskrit alphabet influence Mendeleev’s periodic table?


Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev was not the first to recognize the periodicity of the chemical elements or even to construct a primitive periodic table. He did go much further than his peers, however, in conceptualizing periodicity as a fundamental law governing the nature of the elements. Based on that insight, whenever the properties of a given element didn’t fit the overall pattern, he famously left an empty spot in his table for an as yet undiscovered element. He used the prefixes eka, dvi, and tri, Sanskrit for the numbers one, two, and three, to name these hypothetical elements, referring to the number of places they were from a known, lighter element in the same group.


Let that sink in. Not Greek. Not Latin. Not even German, the lingua franca of science in continental Europe at the time. But Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that few Europeans outside certain rarefied circles had even heard about. This unique decision led us, a chemist and a linguist, to explore what might have led Mendeleev to reference Sanskrit in this way.


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