Chemists Fontani, Costa (both Univ. of Florence) and Orna (Coll. of New Rochelle) travel the pathway to the identification and classification of the elements.
The subject is challenging—it’s chemistry, after all, with some physics—and the narrative is packed with notes, graphs, charts and numbers, but this tour of the obstacles and errors encountered on the way to filling in the periodic table is at once nimble and thorough. The authors have gathered centuries of false starts and wishful thinking in pursuit of the elements. Though they begin with Aristotle’s embroidery on the ideas of Empedocles, Leucippus and Democritus, the meat of the volume covers the last 300 years, as the authors move from Thales and Lavoisier to the periodic table and the particle accelerator. They explore all the fits and fortunes that evolved into the periodic table, from the organizing principles of atomic weight and atomic number to such anomalies as radioactivity (“How could a hitherto stable, substance-specific simple body be changing right before [physicist Henri Becquerel’s] eyes?”). They also look at the tenants who sought membership in the kingdom of the periodic table and provide tightly strung, vest-pocket biographies of their creators. In addition to the chronicles of mind-spinning science, there are moments of high and low humor (elements that never made it: mussolinium and bastardium), Sherlock Holmes–esque detection (“The Curious Case of the Triple Discovery of Actinium”), and competitive pettiness (“Their arguments became trifling and the proposed symbols became illegal squatters in the periodic table”). Even the New Yorker makes an appearance: “We are already at work in our office laboratories on ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium.’ So far we just have the names.” An appendix offers a “Chronological Finder’s Guide for the Lost Elements.”
Many general readers will find the book too dense, but for students and scholars, this is a choice, spirited history of the false discoveries, semi-retractions, abandonments, discoveries and rediscoveries of nature’s building blocks.