Periodic Tales

From the Telegraph Review of Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams:

Chemists have long had to put up with the condescension of physicists. In one especially egregious case, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer – scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb – informed his colleague George Kistiakowsky that he was no longer classed as a “first-rate chemist”, but as a “second-rate physicist”. This, Oppenheimer assured him, was a promotion. The project’s chemists thought this insulting; the physicists thought it hilarious.

Those pesky physicists….

I remember a physics professor extolling the ultimate virtues of his science (I’m not sure if he was aware that I – a lowly chemist – was sitting in front of him… he probably was) saying that physics is the most noble of sciences because it is the most pure – the basis of all other science. I simply nodded though I thought that, using his logic, mathematics would rise high above his craft. Now, the way I looked at it, without chemistry physics is only a bunch of squiggly lines on paper.

At any rate from both these disciplines, along with the various flavors of engineering and production, computer science, marketing and what-not…. comes e-ink, and from e-ink comes e-readers.

And from e-readers come Amazon’s periodic sales, which I peruse carefully. And from one of those periodic sales, came the book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc – delivered through the ether for only a couple bucks right into my hot little hands.

That’s the book’s name in the US – in Europe it’s called Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – a better title in my opinion.

To you, I’m sure the book would seem to be the most boring pile of useless words imaginable – but I thought it fun and interesting. The author has had the lifelong hobby of collecting examples of the elements. He obviously also had the hobby of collecting engaging tidbits and stories about same. One day he had the bright idea of combining the two and coming up with a book. From the way the story is laid out – he used his publisher’s advance to travel to some of the more obscure locations where some of these elements were discovered or can still be found.

So, to extract a sample of phosphorus the author started out – as the early chemists did – by collecting a large amount of pee and letting it evaporate.

Each element’s discovery is spelled out as an adventure tale – many coming on the obscure transition from Alchemy to Modern Chemistry. Many great discoveries came from very odd places. For example, Ytterby – an obscure village in Sweden that gave birth to a slew of new rare earth elements – yttrium, erbium, terbium, and ytterbium.

I’m always getting yttrium and ytterbium mixed up.

I read the book through – though I wanted to slow down and take notes. You never know what interesting conversational anecdotes you may need to impress beautiful women in bars.

  • Dried blood is slightly attracted to magnets because of its iron content.
  • At one time radium was added to many products, especially those that supposedly had a therapeutic effect: Radium Butter, Radium Chocolate, Radium Beer, Radium Condoms, Radium Suppositories, Radium was put in Chicken Feed in hopes of producing Self-Incubating if not Self-Cooking Eggs.
  • The French Scientist Vauquelin isolated chromium by crushing emeralds and rubies. He proved the same element colored both.
  • Jezebel, from the Bible, used compounds of antimony as dark eye makeup.
  • Extremium and Ultimium were proposed as the name of a new element – Plutonium was used instead.
  • In Jean Cocteu’s 1949 film Orphee, Orpheus enters the underworld by passing through a mirror. This shot is achieved by having the actor push his hands into a pool of mercury that is disguised as glass.


from Orphee - the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

from Orphee – the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

Every page is chock-a-block with interesting tidbits like these.

The only letdown of the book was at the end, when the author tried vainly to sum up and leave the reader with an emotional connection with the periodic table. He should have simply run out of elements.

Now, again, I’m a chemist, not a physicist. But I do know physics. I was able to pass three semesters of physical chemistry… which I consider one of the greatest achievements of my life. With that knowledge, I realized that the author also left out one of the most interesting, if technically challenging aspects of his subject. He treats the very periodicity of the periodic table as a great mystery, one that was figured out by long scientific research but never completely explained.

He doesn’t talk about the electron shell model or atomic orbitals. That’s a shame. When you understand this concept, even without the daunting math involved, suddenly it all makes sense. A handful of simple laws are what define the outer-shell electron configuration of every element and that is what makes our world possible. It’s really amazing – if you do the work to understand it.

There are a surprising number of books on the periodic table and I have read a few in the past (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sachs is a favorite) – but Periodic Tales is among the most entertaining and readable.

Finally, as a chemist, a book on the elements ignores the most fascinating aspect of chemistry. It will be, almost by definition, limited to describing Inorganic Chemistry. Carbon is given short-shrift in the book. He talks about it mostly in terms of charcoal and the carbon oxygen cycle.

But it is Organic Chemistry that most people find so fascinating. I still remember the thrill I felt when I was first learning how to manipulate matter, not by the elements it contained, but by arranging the shape of a compound made of a single element (with a few other contaminants maybe thrown in for variety) – how the pattern made by its versatile bonds could give rise to an unlimited cornucopia of new compounds, with wild and outlandish properties….

But that’s a whole ‘nother book.