Jul 21, 2011 1 comment
Periodic Tales: the Curious Lives of the Elements
2011 Penguin Viking £18.99hb 448pp
How much urine do you need to collect if you want to make white phosphorus? A slightly strange question, perhaps, but an understandable one if you are attempting to re-enact Hennig Brand's discovery of the element – which is exactly what author Hugh Aldersey-Williams tries to do in "Pee for phosphorus", the 11th chapter of his book Periodic Tales: the Curious Lives of the Elements. Unfortunately, Aldersey-Williams discovers that recreating the scene made famous by Joseph Wright's iconic 1771 painting The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone is not as easy as it looks. Aldersey-Williams' experiment fails not for lack of urine, but because of insufficient heat in the later stages of the process.
Periodic Tales is one of two popular-science books about the periodic table that have recently been published in the UK, presumably to coincide with the 2011 International Year of Chemistry (the other, Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon, is published by Doubleday). It is an eye-catching book, with an amusing dust jacket on which even the author, publisher and the price have been turned into "elements", with the symbols "Ha-w", "PvK" and "£", respectively. Inside, it is similarly well illustrated, although it is somewhat disappointing that the images are embedded in the text without any captions.
The text itself consists of the author's personal exploration of the periodic table, beginning with a gold sculpture of the model Kate Moss in the British Museum and finishing with an interview with the late Russian experimentalist Yuri Oganessian, creator of several super-heavy elements in the reactor at Dubna in Russia. Inbetween, the reader is entertained with stories – some well known, some new to us – of many, though not all, of the 112 named elements.
The book follows a currently popular genre in which history is mixed with descriptions, almost a travelogue, of the author's journey when researching the book. For example, the section "Our Lady of Radium" includes an account of the author's visit to the Curie Museum in Paris. Some readers may find this distracting, and with nearly 400 pages of text, it does result in quite a long book.
For the most part, though, we enjoyed it and found the storytelling engaging. Two examples give a flavour. First, a section on mercury describes how the French film director Jean Cocteau, in a scene for his film Orphée, made it possible for an actor to "walk" through a mirror formed by a horizontal bath of mercury by turning the camera on its side. Perhaps more interesting was the fact that the mercury was only about a centimetre deep, yet still weighed half a tonne. The second example comes in an anecdote about the Manhattan Project. After chemists working on the top-secret project decided to use "copper "(element 49) as a cover name for plutonium (element 94), they needed to find a way of referring to actual copper. Their solution was to call it "honest to God copper".
At times, though, Aldersey-Williams overreaches himself and allows his own views to intrude on these historical stories. For example, after noting that the Nobel-prize-winning chemist Glen Seaborg said that he chose to name plutonium after the outermost planet of the solar system, the author suggests that Seaborg might have subconsciously meant the name to refer to Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. But no-one can know what was on Seaborg's mind, and this speculation applies somewhat unwarranted hindsight to a good story.
So does the book live up to the expectations raised by its colourful cover? Our answer is a qualified "yes". The author is a chemist turned journalist, which means that his viewpoint is neither that of a professional chemist nor that of a non-specialist; perhaps as a result, he quite often fails to capture the enchantment that chemistry sometimes arouses in the interested layperson. Perhaps we should declare an interest here, for we both contribute to a website, www.periodicvideos.com, that promotes chemistry for a general audience. As such, we have asked some of the same questions as Aldersey-Williams, including "how do you choose the name of an element that you have just synthesized?". We were told by the scientists at Darmstadt that you write the possible names on the coffee-room blackboard and then you vote – which is a rather more exciting and democratic process than the one described by the author in a bland statement that "claimants are now only permitted to put forward names as suggestions".
Another of the book's flaws is that, while it does cover a wide range of chemistry, the author's desire to make the book "different" has led to a somewhat arbitrary arrangement of the elements. This is a pity, because Mendeleev invented his table precisely to bring some order to the elements. As a result, Periodic Tales lacks the precision of the original table and has more of the character of tossed salad. But even in a salad one can find tasty titbits, and the same is true of this book. For example, "Chromatic revolution" weaves a fascinating thread that begins with a box of oil paints belonging to the author's father, progresses via chrome-plated American cars, and ends up in an artists' materials shop in Bloomsbury.
Did we enjoy the book? Yes. Should you read it? Yes, but it is worth remembering that not all the elements have been given their due; in particular, hydrogen is conspicuous by its absence. And should you try to make phosphorus from your urine? Better to pour it on your compost heap.
About the author
Samantha L Y Tang is the public awareness scientist and Martyn Poliakoff is a research professor in chemistry at the University of Nottingham, UK