Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams: A Review

 

One of my general rules in reading is to be wary of books that call themselves “a cultural history.” These books, like those calling themselves “social histories” or, indeed, those written by sociologists, can be perfectly reasonable and servicable works. They can even, like Periodic Tales, occasionally rise to greater heights and be decent overviews of their chosen subject. But, on the other hand, they can be the most appalling dreck, like Lies My Teacher Told Me (qv). So wariness, I urge all readers, should be your watchword, unless you have a lot of time to waste.

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Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (Ecco / HarperCollins, 2012).

Fortunately, Periodic Tales is not written by the sort of non-scientist with a lot of loopy notions about chemicals, drawn from a peculiar mixture of old school documentaries from the 1950s and New Age wonkiness. Aldersey-Williams has previously written on architecture and design, and also authored The Most Beautiful Molecule, which I am now interested to track down and read. In Periodic Tales, however, his subject is the fundamental building blocks of everyday matter, the chemical elements. As the author was an interested experimenter and student in his youth, he has some sense of the workings of chemistry.

Some reviewers have found Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s somewhat chatty, almost conversational style to be grating, but I found it enjoyable on the whole. The author has gone to some little trouble to assemble a history for each of the elements that he chooses to discuss (although he certainly does not discuss them all). Of the 118 elements in the periodic table (as of this writing, four as-yet-unnamed elements were confirmed by the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, on 30 December 2015; those final four are numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118), a little over 100 of those have entries in the index, but about a quarter of these index entries show that the element is mentioned on only one or two pages, indicating a cursory treatment at best (granted, there are a few elements in the periodic table which simply aren’t all that interesting, chemically or otherwise). But when there are forty titled sections in the table contents, the reader will realise that they are not getting an entirely comprehensive survey. “Tales” these certainly are: some familiar, some with which I was not familiar, and some drawn from the author’s own experience.

As a reader with a background in mineralogy, I may have a little better grasp of chemistry than some, and some of the stories which Aldersey-Williams elected to tell in Periodic Tales were already familiar to me. But some were new, which makes me feel fairly certain that most readers will find new and interesting things in this book, as well as an interesting review of some familiar favourites. Of course, the story of chemists like Lavoisier, Humphrey Davy, and Marie Curie were familiar. Dmitri Mendeleev is rightly given his due as the inventor of the Periodic Table (which I am told is still called the Mendeleev Table in Russia to this day). And I enjoyed the story about Aldersey-Williams’s trip to Ytterby in Sweden, and the discussion of Swedish contributions to the science of chemistry were largely new to me.

I also particularly enjoyed a small section on the use of a blowpipe, a subject on which I happen to own several books. Blowpiping, put simply, is the use of a long metal straw with an angled tip to focus a steady stream of air on a sample in a flame, thus making it hotter. The blowpipe was a key tool in late 19th and early 20th century mineralogy, and inexpensive ones can still be obtained from a few specialty retailers, for those interested in attempting their own basic home mineralogical testing. It was a pleasant surprise to me that this arcane subject was covered in Periodic Tales.

What is further surprising and successful in Periodic Tales is that Aldersey-Williams shows himself as a man willing to perform simple chemical experiments in furtherance of his point. Whether he is attempting to produce phosphorous from urine that he has collected (it’s better not to ask), attempting to burn charcoal, or learning to separate iodine from seaweed ash, the author shows a laudable spirit of experimentation which you might not otherwise have expected. For readers who find this sort of activity compelling, the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments by Robert Bruce Thompson would be an excellent place to start exploring the world of doing chemistry at home for fun.

However, unfortunately, there are a couple of flaws with this book which make it less successful than it should have been. The first thing that is frustrating about the book is its seemingly arbitrary organisation. Unlike Theodore Gray’s The Elements, for example, which was published at about the same time and straightforwardly follows the periodic table order (although the application version for the iOS, one of the few such things that I have ever seen that was actually worth shelling out money for, can obviously be accessed in any way one chooses, being tappable), Periodic Tales follows an architecture seemingly set by nothing more definitive than Aldersey-Williams’s own meandering course. His own loosely defined sections of “Power,” “Fire,” “Beauty,” “Craft,” and “Earth” are quite arbitrary, and could easily be re-shuffled in any number of combinations. It could be argued, I suppose, that the course set by the author is one intended to highlight previously unrecognised patterns, but to me, the connections seemed largely unreleated.

The second and perhaps more telling problem is the illustrations. In the trade paperback edition, these are poorly contrasted, and appear at random through the text with no captions. Inquisitive readers will note that there is a “list of illustrations” after the table of contents, but the reason for not simply captioning the images properly is unclear at best. The poor reproduction means that the publisher would have better served the reader by either inserting a proper section of illustrations in the middle on glossy paper, or leaving them out altogether. I cannot say if the hardcover edition suffers from this defect, as I have not found a copy. I wondered if perhaps the book was produced on the cheap, but then I remembered that Ecco, the imprint, is part of the HarperCollins stable, so presumably, money wasn’t a factor. The problem with the illustrations seems to come down to laziness, which is hard to forgive.

In the end, Periodic Tales is a fascinating book with a few key flaws. I don’t think that they’re fatal flaws, and Aldersey-Williams’s narrative style is strong enough to carry the book without the pictures, overall. For those who have a curiosity about the elements in the world around them, who wonder at the things which make up those things which we seem to hold most precious, and their origins, Periodic Tales is an excellent introduction, which requires only that the reader be curious, and not that they remember any bits of long-ago jettisoned chemical knowledge. It is a blend of science, journalism, and history which is altogether pleasing, and an important reminder of the things in the world which we need, yet often don’t even recognise, in our everyday lives. 4.0 stars.

Reviewed 10 September 2016.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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