2012; 429 pages. Full Title : Periodic Tales – A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Non-Fiction; Science, Chemistry; Reference. Overall Rating : 9½*/10.
Did you ever wonder what the “bis” in Pepto-Bismol is? Or how about the “Bromo” in Bromo-Seltzer? Or maybe you want to make your own charcoal from that old tree in the backyard. Even better, let’s make a diamond from that charcoal. They’re both just carbon, aren’t they?
For that matter, why should gold be so valuable? Yes, it’s pretty scarce, but copper is less plentiful than silver, and yet somehow, the latter is our runner-up to the gold.
And who the heck came up with names for the elements like Yttrium Ytterbium, and the mind-boggling Gadolinium? Who is the “Lawrence” that gave Lawrencium its name, and why didn’t he just go by “Larium”?
If questions like these tickle your fancy, you might want to pick up Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Prepare to be both enlightened and amused.
What’s To Like...
Periodic Tales is divided into six parts. Surprisingly, the author goes neither in the order of Atomic Numbers, alphabetically, nor by columns in the Periodic Table. The chapters are:
Part 1. Power (5%).
In which he focuses on elements associated with earthly power – gold, iron, etc. I thought the subsection about Wollaston & Chevenix and their work with the Noble Metals was fascinating.
Part 2. Fire (23%).
Elements that burn. Elements that are corrosive.
Part 3. Craft (43%).
Elements that artisans can work with.. Tin, lead, silver, calcium, etc.
Part 4. Beauty (60%).
Elements used for their lustrous and inherent colors, either "as is" or in a compound. Paints, etc.
Part 5. Earth (73%).
Elements that are mined. Including the Rare Earth metals.
Part 6. Epilogue (82%).
Closing thoughts from the author.
I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but it appears all of the elements get at least passing mention. At times, Aldersey-Williams lumps a bunch of them together, such as the trans-uranium and rare-earth elements. Even one of my pet elements, Lawrencium, gets a nod, albeit a brief one.
Nevertheless, quite a few of the elements do get detailed attention. Stylistically, the author uses any or all of the following to acquaint us with any given element:
Production: how to synthesize a given element. What you can make by reacting it with something.
Historical: particularly if the element has been known for ages.
Discovery: who first isolated it, and/or correctly identified it as a new element, including mini-biographies of some of the foremost chemists and physicists of the day.
Properties: density, color, reactivity, etc.
Cultural: where do we find it is literature, paintings, books, etc.
Political: the pros and cons of fluoridation, homeopathy, etc., and sparingly used by the author, which is a plus.
As expected, the text abounds in trivia about each element, and I ate these bits of interest up. Some examples of the tidbits discussed: the Willamette meteorite, how to make charcoal, how to extract Iodine from kelp, sulfur and its bad reputation, polysulfides (which I work abundantly with), phlogiston, Wilfred Owen, aqua regia, etc. I could tell you amazing anecdotes about making my own aqua regia in high school chem lab, but perhaps it’s best to keep those misadventures to myself.
I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the claimed-to-be elements, that were later disproved, such as occultum, coronium, and nebulium. Just because you find something new, doesn't necessarily mean it's elemental. I was also surprised by how many elements weren’t discovered until the 1800’s.
There are a ton of pictures to go along with the commentary, and that was a plus, even if they were small in the e-book format. Periodic Tales is written in English, not American, so you get words like grey, colour, aluminium, lustre, tonne, etc. The book is a vocabularian’s delight; see the next section for just a few of the great unfamiliar words I encountered. The footnotes were handled as smoothly as I’ve ever seen in an e-book. And if you’re OCD like I am, keep in mind that the text ends at page 398 (84% Kindle). The last 16% is the Index, Bibliography, etc.
Kewlest New Word ...
Synecdoche (n., and not pronounced even remotely like you'd expect.) : a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in “Cleveland won by six runs” (meaning ‘Cleveland’s baseball team’).
Others : ludic (adj.); palaver (n.); caryatids (.n, pl.adj.); tetchy (adj.);orotundity (n.); BOGOF (acronym); Piranesian (adj.); quiddity (n.); semiotics (n., pl.); menhir (n.); intaglio (n.); field-fares (n., pl.); hoicks (v.); auto-didact (n.);
Working with tellurium is always unpleasant – the compound that it forms with hydrogen is like hydrogen sulphide, with its infamous rotten-eggs smell, but far more offensive. Later, Seaborg managed to delegate the tellurium chemistry to his own student, who had great trouble ridding himself of the stink. Days afterwards, it was even possible to tell which library books he had been consulting from the revolting odour they exuded. (loc. 1085)
The first primitive electric telegraph line was built in the 1790s by Francisco Salva and was capable of transmitting sparks from Madrid to Aranjuez fifty kilometres away. Salva proposed a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet with the arriving spark briefly illuminating letters in turn to spell out messages. (He apparently also considered connecting a person to each wire and having them shout out the letter when they received an electric shock.) (loc. 3323)
Civilization, it is immediately apparent, is simply organized resistance to oxidation. (loc. 2242)
I don’t really have any criticisms or even quibbles with Periodic Tales. It is well-written, and with a lot more details than I had expected, which made for a pleasant read. I suppose I could've asked for all 118 elements (there were only 103 when I was in school) to have detailed attention paid to them, but I think that would’ve made for some slow spots.
Full disclosure: I’m a chemist, so this was happy reading ground for me. Using silver nitrate as an analytical test for the presence of chlorine is a test method I'm familiar with, and it was fun to see it in cited in this book. Surely any scientist is going to enjoy Periodic Tales.
However, if you are not a science-lover, or if you have recurring nightmares about being forced to take chem lab in high school or college, I can see where reading this book might get tedious. So perhaps the target audience for Periodic Tales is rather narrow.
9½ Stars. Science, History, Vocabulary, Culture, and Make-Your-Own Chemicals. What more could a geeky nerd like me ask for?