April 2, 2012


The Curious Lives Of The Elements
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
398 pages, Penguin

Review by Marc Nash

As a kid I used to train my mind by memorising lists of things. The 50 US States (but not the State Capitals), bridges over the River Thames and the 105 elements of the Periodic Table (now risen to 118).  And while I veered towards the Arts side subjects, I always loved Chemistry. So when I was rewarded by Penguin Books for participating in a reading habits interview with a free book of my choice, this was the one I plumped for over a range of contemporary novels that didn't strike me as terribly appealing. In doing so, I had a ready-made gauge for the success or otherwise of this book: would I have paid for it with my own money?

Periodic Tales is pitched not as an academic tome, nor even a comprehensive study, but more of a fun and slightly off-kilter look at the elements. Williams considers the weight that each element has in our culture, such as lead being associated with death (lining of sarcophagi), leaden skies and gravity itself. He looks at where their names originated from, those metals known to the Ancient civilisations having counter-intuitive letter symbols, because they drew on their Latin or Greek names; stannum meaning tin's symbol is SN, aurus for gold's AU. Then there are those elements discovered (or maybe uncovered would be more accurate, originating largely from mined ores and isolated) between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and the surprisingly central role that Swedish scientists had in this. And their diffidence in claiming credit for their finds, unlike the contests between French and British scientists. Cobalt was named after 'kobald', the mythical German miners.

The book is full of etymological gems like this. But I was uncertain as to whether every element was covered. Several were named in passing but not elaborated on, which I found disappointing. The organisation of the elements is not by their group on the Periodic Table, but the author's fanciful labels of "Power", "Fire", "Craft", "Beauty" and "Earth". This lends to the subjective feel throughout the book, so either you buy into the author's perspective the subject as a whole and his take on certain elements individually, or you don't. He starts off with offering testimony to his youthful quest to collect samples of each element, but this enthusiasm somehow fails to be transmitted by the adult him even when he makes pilgrimage to sites where elements were discovered. Many of the sites bear no memorial to their historical importance and have slipped from collective memory. Including the Swedish Ytterby mine where six elements emerged from.

For me there were tantalising gobbets of information here, including the treatment of how elements give off different colours under a spectroscope and where the word 'limelight' comes from. But ultimately I felt frustrated, left with the compound ore rather than being able to bear down on the individual elemental knowledge within. The final chapter sees Williams asking a German scientist why they bother synthesising new elements with half-lives so brief, that the elements cannot be used for anything before they decay and disappear. The scientist gives him an answer that I found as unsatisfying as Williams' own attempts to justify his quest. Would I have paid my own money to buy this book? No, probably not. Right, well I'm off to learn the names of the 13 elements discovered since I learned the Periodic table at school.

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