PERIODIC TALES by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

PERIODIC TALES

A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A contextually thorough examination of the periodic table of elements.

Most often associated with high-school chemistry class, the periodic table is underrated. Its very construction, first introduced by Russian chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev (1834–1907) in 1869, innovated the way in which scientists categorized elements (by atomic number) and allowed them to predict missing elements according to where they would fit (by periodic relatedness). Now totaling 118, each element is unique in its chemical makeup, physical manifestation and cultural significance. Aldersey-Williams (British Design, 2010, etc.) tells the stories of these elements, reminding us that nothing of the world we know would be possible without them. The author details how elements can dictate economies (gold), love (platinum), war (plutonium) and technology (lithium); how elements can be applied as a cure-all in one era, yet shunned as a poison the next (mercury); how iron in meteorites hint at the mysteries of the universe and also provide us with the building blocks of modern cities. Writers and artists from Nabokov to Calder refer to elements in metaphor as well as utilize them physically, and elements are woven throughout cultural mythologies, from the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, who carries a silver shield, to dystopian fiction, in which the yellow light of sodium street lamps seems omnipresent, to the mystery writer Agatha Christie, whose use of the poisonous element thallium in one of her novels may have saved real lives by educating readers to its symptoms. Throughout this comprehensive survey, Aldersey-Williams writes with great enthusiasm and describes how he conducted his own experiments to illuminate a certain property or application. The author's passion and wit keep the book from being weighed down by its scope, and instead casts elemental inquiry with intrigue.

A lucid, enjoyable collection of stories that, element by element, demystify the iconic periodic table.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-182472-2
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2011




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