My grandfather was a chemist. He worked more with plastics and practicalities than with the specific, individual elements – certainly he worked more with the organic and elemental combinations than with the separation and discovery of new elements. But he helped instill in me an interest in what the world was made of. I loved chemistry in high school, and was good at it. (Physics was another matter – I am more interested in what things are made of then how they work, apparently.)
I am also interested in how things are organised and classified – what stories we tell about things to make sense of their place in the world. I love the periodic table, with its combination of organisation by size and by function. I am always amused by the different types of periodic tables that pop up – the periodic table of storytelling, or the periodic table of cupcakes.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this was kind of a perfect book for me. It combined storytelling and chemistry. It explained some of the classifications of the elements, and the discovery of the elements, and the functions of the elements. It discussed the cultural significance of gold versus silver, chrome versus platinum or titanium, iron and zinc. I learned more than I realised I didn’t know about ores and mining and geology.
It didn’t cover all of the elements, which was a bit disappointing. There wasn’t much inclusion of carbon, for example, or some of the other light elements (boron, lithium, etc.) There was a lot about the “rare earths”, which I didn’t know anything about, at all. But what it did include was, overall, fantastic. I doubt I’ll have retained all of it (I didn’t take notes or anything) but I think I’ve retained enough to at least have some pub quiz/trivia night answers handy.
The other thing that it didn’t include, which was incredibly frustrating at times, was a copy of the periodic table itself. This would have been so useful, especially when he was talking about some of the lesser-known elements (Germanium, for example), just to get a sense of where they were on the chart. It even would have been nice with the better-known elements, just as a reminder of things like their chemical symbol. (Especially since he mentions the chemical symbol of silver, for example.) I read this book in places where I didn’t have easy internet access – I couldn’t just go and look up the periodic table – and I only have it memorized through neon on a good day.
But that’s a relatively petty frustration when it comes to such an interesting topic. It ultimately doesn’t matter that I didn’t have a table on which to base myself when he was detailing the discovery and different light colours of sodium and neon and argon, or the discovery of various radioactive elements, or his search for samples of the elements that he could put in his own physical periodic table.
It may not have made me want to run out and become a chemist, but it definitely made me more aware of the presence and use of specific elements in our daily world – and that is no bad thing.