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Eclipse Watcher

August 19, 2012

High school chemistry students the world over know the work of Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev — he’s one of the inventors of the periodic table of the elements. But Mendeleev’s interests went far beyond what he could see in the laboratory — and he was willing to risk his neck to pursue them.

125 years ago today he rose through the clouds in a hot air balloon to watch a total solar eclipse. Even though he was his own pilot, he didn’t know how to land a balloon. In fact, he’d never even been in one.

Solar eclipses were prized scientific events. Among other things, they offered the only chance to study the Sun’s hot outer atmosphere, the corona, which is too faint to see through the daytime sky.

Mendeleev took off from a village in western Russia, and climbed to an altitude of more than two miles. He recorded detailed observations of the eclipse, then turned his attention to how to get down. He figured it out and soon landed safely — his valuable eclipse notes in hand.

He left his post with Saint Petersburg University a few years later. But he continued to pursue his diverse interests — helping set up Russia’s first oil refinery, for example, and establishing a national standard for vodka.

Decades after his death, scientists named an element that was created in the laboratory in his honor. Mendelevium is the 101st element on the periodic table — one of the many legacies of a scientist who climbed to meet the Sun.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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