Once there lived and existed a great learned man with a beard almost as long as God’s. And one day the people came to this man and said ‘Go to the Lord, and tell him of our misery.’ ‘I will go,’ said the man. So he caught a great bubble, and sat down on top of it, and flew up and up until he pierced the heaven above us. And there he saw God and told him of our misery and God pardoned our sins and lightened our burdens. Then the great bearded man came down from the heavens and the people were happy. And for this, the authorities and the Tsar made this man a very great scientist.
- D.Q. Posin, Mendeleev: The Story of a Great Chemist
The Russian verb vodit’, razvodit’ (водить, разводить) which gives us “to breed” and “to dilute” also gives us Vodka. An early use of the word vodka comes from a pharmaceutical text discussing various tinctures and spirits used for medical applications, dilutions of various curatives in water and grain alcohol.
While saving lives is all well and good, the real success of Vodka is that it gets you drunk. The drink is believed to have originated in the bread basket region of Central Europe known for grain production that stretches through modern day Poland – Belarus – Lithuania – Ukraine – and western Russia. Etymology of languages from this region suggests that Vodka wasn’t always the drink of choice for wimpy college girls who didn’t want to taste the booze in their cocktails.
Peoples in the area of vodka’s probable origin have names for vodka with roots meaning “to burn”: Polish: gorzałka; Ukrainian: горілка, horilka; Belarusian: гарэлка, harelka; Lithuanian: degtinė (prior purification of Lithuanian language Belarusian loanword arielka was used); Latvian: degvīns; Finnish: paloviina; Danish; brændevin; Swedish: brännvin; Norwegian: Brennevin (although the Swedish and Norwegian terms refer to any strong alcoholic beverage); in Russian during 17th and 18th century горящее вино (goryashchee vino, “burning wine”) was widely used.
In other words, it was rather unpleasant and unrefined stuff that supposedly puts hair on your chest and turns many a newcomer in to a gasping fire breather. While it might not have taken a genius to figure out that if you water the stuff down a little bit it won’t be so caustic, in the case of Vodka, it did take a genius. That’s where Dimitri Mendeleev comes in.
You’ll remember Mr. Mendeleev from such high school lectures as “the guy who developed the periodic table,” or “the guy who invented smokeless powder,” or even “the guy who postulated that oil doesn’t come from fossils at all,” but I doubt you were ever given the lecture about Dimitri Mendeleev, the man who brought Vodka to the world. Well, your school sucked.
Dr. LaRue, my high school CP and AP chemistry teacher (and the AP coordinator for the most successful AP school in a thousand mile radius) was quite the party animal in college. His graduate biochem lab hosted the best parties on or off campus because young Mr. LaRue and his classmates had access to untainted 200 proof alcohol. Coeds these days might enjoy a little “rectified spirit” or Everclear in their Orange Juice, but in the good old days on dry campuses in states with Blue Laws, the pure and unadulterated (non-denatured) ethanol was the best, and typically the only way to get your grad school groove on.
You see, pure alcohol has many uses both industrial and scientific, and to keep the workers sober, it’s a universal practice to “denature” pure ethanol with nasty and carcinogenic toxins to render it unfit for consumption (benzene, methanol, jet fuel). My guess is that there was probably a little bit of political pressure from the booze industry as well. Although the word denature has a specific scientific meaning, its use here simply means to remove the natural urge to drink it.
The additives also prevent the ethanol from spoiling. You see, pure ethanol is parched, dehydrated, and in search of any moisture it can get. It will even pull it right out of the air. So, to keep the industrial ethanol pure and effective, the additives hinder its ability to draw moisture out of the air. That property of pure ethanol is also the reason that Chemistry and Biology grad students have access to bountiful amounts of ethanol. They need pure ethanol for their labs, so the tainted stuff won’t work, but it also goes bad as the ethanol draws moisture out of the air and thus becomes unreliable as having a stable concentration of ethanol.
Well, instead of throwing it out, why not drink it?!
And that’s just what Mr. LaRue and Mendeleev did. The addition of water to the ethanol is what made it bad for science, but perfect for drinking. The question becomes, when you’re all out of juice for mixers (and who keeps such things in the lab anyway), what is the perfect ratio of ethanol to water to take the fire out of firewater but still leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside?
The most all penetrating spirit before which will open the possibility of tilting not tables, but planets, is the spirit of free human inquiry. Believe only in that.
And by spirit, Dmitri meant booze. Being the genius that he was, Mendeleev wasted no time in finding the solution and put his late night table-tilting parties in the lab and marathon of taste testing dilutions of booze to good use. So as not to detract from his studies, Dmitri made booze his study, and turned his little project into his Doctoral dissertation. In 1866, he published his dissertation “On the Combinations of Water with Alcohol,” and was awarded the title of Doctor of Science and Professor of Chemistry at the University in St. Petersburg.
You bet they were. And his findings were also expansive to his waistline and beneficial to his notoriety in all the best bars in St. Petersburg. But his fame was not so beneficial to his first marriage and Dmitri ditched his first wife to lust after the pubescent friend of his niece, eventually marrying her against the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church and condemning his soul to eternal damnation. But it worked for the two of them and they drank much vodka and had hot monkey sex and she bore him many children.
Dmitri became uber-famous and a national hero when his vodka-induced visions led to his ordering of the known elements into a table based upon the periodic nature of their properties and reactive natures based upon their atomic mass. Brilliant insight, although he probably would have made the final leap from atomic mass to today’s ordering by atomic number if he weren’t so damn drunk. No matter, it didn’t change anything, and Dmitri’s ability to not only predict the future but order the past earned him well deserved fame.
In order to clarify the matter further, I wish to draw some conclusions as to the chemical and physical properties of those elements which have not been placed in the system and which are still undiscovered but whose discovery is very probable. I think that until now we have not had any chance to foresee the absence of these or other elements, because we have had no order for their arrangement, and even less have we had occasion to predict the properties of such elements. An established system is limited by its order of known or discovered elements.
Dmitri eventually ditched academia and took up a job on the government payroll, directing the Bureau of Weights and Measures. Like all good bureaucrats, Dmitri didn’t have much to do and a lot of time to do it in, so he turned his considerable talents once again to vodka. This time, he was going to prove that his preferred mixture of water and ethanol was the best, so he applied cutting edge chemistry to the task. Based upon the physical properties of the ethyl alcohol molecule, Mendeleev discovered that one molecule of ethyl alcohol shepherded on either end by one molecule of water (2 waters to 1 ethyl alcohol) made for the perfect vodka experience.
There was just enough water to prevent the ethyl molecule from robbing moisture from your mouth or stomach (creating the burn) and not too much as to waste precious space in the bottle, glass, and stomach with excess water. By volume, the mixture works out to be 62% water and 38% alcohol. At strengths less than this, vodka will taste watery, and in higher concentrations it will burn.
There exists everywhere a medium in things, determined by equilibrium. The Russian proverb says, ‘Too much salt or too little salt is alike an evil.’ It is the same in political and social relations… It is the function of science to discover the existence of a general reign of order in nature and to find the causes governing this order. And this refers in equal measure to the relations of man – social and political – and to the entire universe as a whole.
Dmitri’s formula didn’t solve the social and political problems in the entire Universe, nor even in Russia (the Vodka Wars are still going strong), but his work was so convincing that Tsar Alexander III instituted Russian Standards for Vodka Production based on the research and the new era of drinkable Vodka was ushered in. Almost every bottle of Vodka you can find in on store shelves today that is meant to be consumed neat will be sold at 40% alcohol by volume or 80 proof. The slight rounding has to do with ease of taxation (spirits are taxed based upon strength) and not on the actual mixture in the bottle.
Dmitri’s final words to his students upon his retirement from the University in no small way resemble the effects one gains when drinking Vodka in the perfect concentration:
I have achieved an inner freedom. There is nothing in this world that I fear to say. No one nor anything can silence me. This is a good feeling. This is the feeling of a man. I want you to have this feeling too – it is my moral responsibility to help you achieve this inner freedom. I am an evolutionist of a peaceable type. Proceed in a logical and systematic manner.
- Dmitri Mendeleev
So by bringing the perfect Vodka to the impoverished and downtrodden masses in Russia, Mendeleev did see God vodka while perched on a bubble (hik!) and told Him it of their misery. And in bars and homes everywhere across Russia and the world, God vodka is pardoning sins and lightening burdens.
Then the great bearded man came down from the heavens and the people were happy.
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