Fifty Minerals That Changes the Course of History, by Eric Chaline: A Review

There should be a good deal to like in a book that promises to review the minerals that have changed the course of history. Minerals, and mineralogy as a science, have led to countless developments in human history, and there are many interesting stories to tell about how our understanding of the things which come from beneath the earth have led to humanity’s present level of modest technological comfort and advancement. Unfortunately, Fifty Minerals That Changes the Changed the Course of History does not achieve that purpose, and fails significantly on several levels.


Fifty Minerals That Changed the Course of History (Firefly Books, 2012)

First, we should define terms. A mineral, to anyone with even a modest scientific background, is generally considered to be “a naturally-occuring inorganic substance with a definite chemical composition and regular crystal structure.” There are a few exceptions to this definition, like opal, which is amorphous silica with no fixed structure, but the definition serves in the vast majority of cases. In other words, there were minerals before there was life on Earth (although they have continued to form since the advent of life nearly four billion years ago); minerals are a byproduct not of organic processes, but of natural interactions between the materials which make up the crust, mantle, and sometimes even lower layers of the earth. Although mineral collectors are often also collectors of fossil and even rocks (rocks, loosely speaking, are composed of a variety of minerals and have a variable chemistry), most who have passed beyond the most elementary phases of the hobby would not consider amber, or coal, or ivory, or slate to be a part of their mineral collection.

Next, we look at the book. On the face of it, this is an attractive volume. But when the reader begins to examine the contents, a lot of things suddenly fail to make sense. The decision, for example, to organise the contents of the book by Latin and pseudo-Latin names is an odd one, and its odder still because the names aren’t always correct. I’ve compiled several examples. From what I can tell after digging through several old Latin textbooks, two Latin dictionaries, and the Oxford Classical Dictionary (Second Edition, my personal favourite), Chaline appears to have confused the nominative and genitive forms of several of the names (as though some of them said “noun” and others said “of the noun”). For example, he uses “ferreus” (“[made] of iron”), where “ferrum” would have been the correct nominative. “Kalium” is a either derived from a Greek-root or a Neo-Latin word dating to the Renaissance (typically, Latin does not have words beginning with the letter “k,” as their hard-“C” sound covered the same territory as the Greek kappa, K). For “amber,” the pseudo-Latinate word given is “anbar,” which should proably be the Middle Latin “ambar.” And the question of copper versus bronze is a vexed one: according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, aes was used indiscriminately for both copper and bronze, and while saying aes cyprium makes some sense (Cyprus was a key source of copper, and serves as the root from which our modern word copper is derived), I can find no reason for calling bronze aes brundisium. Brundisium (modern-day Brindisi) was a Greek and later Roman port on the Adriatic coast, but if there is a connection between the Roman town and bronze, apart from as a trading centre, I have not been able to find it (see OCD 2E, “Bronze,” p. 182). And the usage esclate for “slate” (again, neither an element nor a mineral, but a metamorphic rock) appears to be a Renaissance coinage from Old French, from the verb esclater (Francophones will remember that the “es-“ form often became the “é-“ prefix in Middle and Modern French, thus making the word the more familiar verb éclater). If a writer were going to try to be more consistent, or at least, less torturous, the word might best be tabula. Clearly, this is a case where an editor with a background in Classics could have been usefully employed, but more to the point: why organise the entries in that way at all? It’s confusing and random.

Unfortunately, it’s relatively easy to see that this volume is just not overly sound in general. Some of the articles are only tangentially related to the materials that they propose to discuss. The article on clay indulges in lengthy discursions on the Towel of Babel. The pages on phosphorous do not discuss the isolation of phosphorous at all, but merely its industrial uses, and again, the book fails to discriminate between a chemical element and a mineral, merely listing its source as “phosphate minerals,” which surely doesn’t help anyone who doesn’t already know what a phosphate mineral is, does it? In each case, what Chaline identifies as a mineral either isn’t a mineral at all, or has only been isolated in the modern era. On phosphorous alone, there is a far better book, John Emsley’s The 13th Element (originally titled The Shocking History of Phosphorous), which delves into the discovery, isolation, and industrial applications of phosphorous.

Some additional problems are obvious: Chaline has titled the book Fifty Minerals, yet roughly a dozen of his entries are not, by any recognisable definition, minerals. At its most severe, counting proper minerals only (by the strict mineralogical definition given above) cuts out twenty-five of the fifty entries, or half of the book. These are disqualified for a variety of reasons, such as that they may be produced using minerals, or other naturally occurring materials, but they are not minerals in the geological sense. Materials like coral, amber, ivory, nacre, chalk, coal and petroleum are organic compounds. Bronze and steel are manufactured, as is plutonium. Potassium is far too reactive to be considered a mineral, although there are potassium minerals galore. Zinc rarely occurs in nature uncompounded with other elements, tungsten and titanium less-so, and radium and uranium never. And pumice, slate, flint, and obsidian are rocks.

So already, readers are not enjoying encounters with history-changing minerals, but with a variety of materials of various provenances. This might be allowable, if it were not for two things. First, it ignores the long, long list of minerals that Chaline has left out, which would easily have filled the book to the required number, with many to spare. Secondly, it is bad and sloppy science to blur the distinctions between mineralogy, geology, paleontology, and biology.


So, wait. Am I calcite, or am I onyx, or, what? You say I’m alabaster? It’s funny, because I don’t feel like alabaster…

Small details are also aggravatingly wrong. Chemical formulae – ridiculously provided even for the organic materials and redundantly so for the native elements – are regularly wrong. The forumla for jadeite is wrong, as is that given for alum, as well as one given for “asbestos”. Alabaster is referred to by the chemical formula for calcite (CaCO3), which is technically only partially correct for reasons far too involved to go into here. Most unforgivably, the “formula” for zinc is wrong (it is given as just “Z,” rather than “Zn”). I’m sorry if that seems like cavilling and quibbling, but these things matter. Facts matter.

Finally, on reading Chaline’s list of suggested “further reading,” it becomes clear why the author makes such a catastrophic hash of his subject. Not one actual text on mineralogy is cited, not even a dated one. I would have been perfectly happy to see Dana’s System of Mineralogy in the 7th Edition, for example, or the Manual of Mineralogy, or even Sinkankas’s Mineralogy for Amateurs. These are dated but reliable volumes on the fundamentals of mineralogy. Certainly, standard textbooks like the Manual of Mineral Science (an expansion and extension of the Dana Manual of Mineralogy) are not cited, and apparently were never consulted. Chaline has also clearly never consulted either a European or American mineralogical publication, popular nor professional, as none of these are cited. Instead, he has relied upon several field guides, and a whole load of secondary works that are not focussed on mineralogy. Perhaps most unforgivably, Chaline has cited four of his own works in the “Further Reading,” none of which have anything to do with mineralogy.

Before I’m accused of hammering away with my demanding and negative outlook, let me say that I wanted this to be a better book, or at least a less-aggravating one. I would not deny that the items on Chaline’s list have been important in human history. But I would emphatically repeat that while there are some things to recommend Fifty Minerals, the book’s value is gravely undermined by the fact that it not only claims half of its content as minerals when they are patently not. Further, the book fails to take any account of the real and fascinating stories of minerals, of chemistry, and of the science that humans learned from trying to find what all of those shiny metals and variously coloured crystals dug out of earth were made from. That is the real story, and the book that has yet to be properly written. Maybe one day I’ll do it myself. But I know a number of people who are interested in rocks and minerals generally, and I could not in good conscience give this book to any of them. Two stars.

Reviewed 2 december 2016.


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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2 Responses to Fifty Minerals That Changes the Course of History, by Eric Chaline: A Review

  1. Oh my, Z for Zinc is a basic enough error to make me question the entire content of the text–even without all the issues you pointed out. What a shame.

    Liked by 1 person

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