Periodic Tales

by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Cover image

Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: February 2011
ISBN: 0-06-207881-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 451

Buy at Powell's Books

Perhaps my favorite chapter in Randall Munroe's What If? is his examination of what would happen if you assembled a periodic table from square blocks of each element. As with most What If? questions, the answer is "everyone in the vicinity dies," but it's all about the journey. The periodic table is full of so many elements that we rarely hear about but which have fascinating properties. It was partly in the memory of that chapter that I bought Periodic Tales on impulse after seeing a mention of it somewhere on the Internet (I now forget where).

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a journalist and author, but with a background in natural sciences. He also has a life-long hobby of collecting samples of the elements and attempting to complete his own private copy of the periodic table, albeit with considerably more precautions and sample containment than Munroe's thought experiment. Periodic Tales is inspired by that collection. It's a tour and cultural history of many of the elements, discussing their discovery, their role in commerce and industry, their appearance, and often some personal anecdotes. This is not exactly a chemistry book, although there's certainly some chemistry here, nor is it a history, although Aldersey-Williams usually includes some historical notes about each element he discusses. The best term might be an anthropology of the elements: a discussion of how they've influenced culture and an examination of the cultural assumptions and connections we've constructed around them. But primarily it's an idiosyncratic and personal tour of the things Aldersey-Williams found interesting about each one.

Periodic Tales is not comprehensive. The completionist in me found that a bit disappointing, and there are a few elements that I think would have fit the overall thrust of the book but are missing. (Lithium and its connection to mental health and now computer batteries comes to mind.) It's also not organized in the obvious way, either horizontally or vertically along the periodic table. Instead, Aldersey-Williams has divided the elements he talks about into five major but fairly artificial divisions: power (primarily in the economic sense), fire (focused on burning and light), craft (the materials from which we make things), beauty, and earth. Obviously, these are fuzzy; silver appears in craft, but could easily be in power with gold. I'm not sure how defensible this division was. But it does, for good or for ill, break the reader's mind away from a purely chemical and analytical treatment and towards broader cultural associations.

This cultural focus, along with Aldersey-Williams's clear and conversational style, are what pull this book firmly away from being a beautified recitation of facts that could be gleamed from Wikipedia. It also leads to some unexpected choices of focus. For example, the cultural touchstone he chooses for sodium is not salt (which is a broad enough topic for an entire book) but sodium street lights, the ubiquitous and color-distorting light of modern city nights, thus placing salt in the "fire" category of the book. Discussion of cobalt is focused on pigments: the brilliant colors of paint made possible by its many brightly-colored compounds. Arsenic is, of course, a poison, but it's also a source of green, widely used in wallpaper (and Aldersey-Williams discusses the connection with the controversial death of Napoleon). And the discussion of aluminum starts with a sculpture, and includes a fascinating discussion of "banalization" as we become used to use of a new metal, which the author continues when looking a titanium and its currently-occurring cultural transition between the simply new and modern and a well-established metal with its own unique cultural associations.

One drawback of the somewhat scattered organization is that, while Periodic Tales provides fascinating glimmers of the history of chemistry and the search to isolate elements, those glimmers are disjointed and presented in no particular order. Recently-discovered metals are discussed alongside ancient ones, and the huge surge in elemental isolation in the 1800s is all jumbled together. Wikipedia has a very useful timeline that helps sort out one's sense of history, but there was a part of me left wanting a more structured presentation.

I read books like this primarily for the fascinating trivia. Mercury: known in ancient times, but nearly useless, so used primarily for ritual and decoration (making the modern reader cringe). Relative abundancies of different elements, which often aren't at all what one might think. Rare earths (not actually that rare): isolated through careful, tedious work by Swedish mining chemists whom most people have never heard of, unlike the discoverers of many other elements. And the discovery of the noble gases, which is a fascinating bit of disruptive science made possible by new technology (the spectroscope), forcing a rethinking of the periodic table (which had no column for noble gases). I read a lot of this while on vacation and told interesting tidbits to my parents over breakfast or dinner. It's that sort of book.

This is definitely in the popular science and popular writing category, for all the pluses and minuses that brings. It's not a detailed look at either chemistry or history. But it's very fun to read, it provides a lot of conversational material, and it takes a cultural approach that would not have previously occurred to me. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-04-29

Last modified and spun 2017-04-30