Tag Archives: chemistry

Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

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.

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Initial thoughts on The Age of Wonder

Thoughts on The Age of Wonder

 

I have been somewhat sporadically reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. (Sporadically because I’ve just started a new job, and someone who shall remain nameless has gotten me hooked on World of Warcraft to the point where I have to play it myself, and then there’s the musical theatre group that I don’t practice for enough…anyway…..) It’s a good book, and definitely worth the acclaim that it got. It’s not without flaws, though, and since this is a relatively critical blog, I thought I’d mention them.

One of the things is just me and my personal history and education in the Romantic era. I took a class in my study-abroad year on Romanticism (primarily in literature) which focused a lot (a lot a lot) on the political and intellectual background of the era – the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the extending of the vote in the UK and the Corn Laws and the “Industrial Revolution” and the resulting unrest, etc. [England in 1819? Highly topical sonnet by Shelley and brilliantly scathing if you know the characters] To me, primarily because of this class, the political/current-event background of the time period is essential to the issues in Romanticism. We discussed, in detail, how the world that these writers lived in shaped their mentality and ideas and forms – whether by addressing them in their work (Shelley, Wordsworth in some things, Mary Wollstonecraft), by allegorizing them (Byron, Shelley some more), or by ignoring them and focusing on something else entirely (Keats). (These examples are not exclusive of other writers, nor inclusive of all of these writers’ work.)

This book….doesn’t. It doesn’t completely ignore the political situation – there’s a scientist mentioned who was guillotined, balloon technology was feared because it could have military implications, etc. – but it doesn’t make any sort of claim or connection between the external situation and the scientists’ internal motivations. I know it doesn’t have to, necessarily, but if something is specifically about the “Romantic generation”, then I want to know what about it being the “Romantic generation” led to this seemingly sudden explosion in scientific research and discovery – and so far it’s not giving me that.

If anything, it’s more a book about Joseph Banks and his protégés/connections/influence and assistance than it is a book about the Romantic generation’s discovery of science. Banks was the focus of the first chapter (which was actually the chapter so far that I’ve had the hardest time keeping interest in), and he has shown up in every following chapter – almost as the guiding hand for all of the research. He was President of the Royal Society (or whatever) so it makes sense – but he’s definitely the link, and that structural connection isn’t really even hinted at in the title or back-of-book summary. (Side question that I really should know, but I don’t: is there a technical term for the back-of-book/dust jacket summary thing?)

The other thing that I’ve been thinking of in connection with this book is the definition of technology. This is something that pops up every once in a while in my life, often when someone calls themselves a “Luddite” or makes similar comments about technology (usually in the “it’s taking over the world!” vein). The thing is, almost everything is technological. When people say, “I’m giving up on technology and going to live in the woods!” they forget that things like axes (for cutting down trees) and matches (for starting fires) and baskets (for collecting food) are all technology.

I noticed it in this book with the chapter on ballooning. It refers to “balloon technology”, which struck me as odd when I first read it. We don’t usually think of balloons, even hot-air balloons, as being “technology”, but they are. Everything we use is technology – it’s not limited to electronics or computers or internal combustion engines.

I still have four chapters left to read; I’ve just finished the chapter on Humphrey Davy and his research into nitrous oxide. I’ll probably post again when I’ve finished the whole thing.

 

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A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing voice. It’s wry, it’s distinctive, it’s colloquial without being overly dated.  I was a little bit nervous about this book, because I tend to like Bryson’s specifically travel books better than anything else (I have not gotten all the way through Thunderbolt Kid, for instance – although I haven’t tried his Shakespeare book yet). But I quite enjoyed this book, which, if you don’t know, is all about the history of science. Every science – chemistry, physics, geology, biology, anthropology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. – is described from the beginning of the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 21st century. It’s like a travel book through the history of science.

One of the things that reading books like this does to me is make me want to read more books like this. I walked into Blackwell’s today and had to restrain myself from buying an anthology of science writing. I also had to restrain myself from adding lots of obscure public-domain science books to my list, and looking up ways that I could get extra degrees in things like chemistry or bacterial biology or astronomy or even just mathematics. Books like this also make me want to write books like this: I have at least one travel book started in my head now. The only problem is that my writing keeps sounding like Bryson, and not so much like me yet.

Because that’s another thing that reading books like this does to me: it makes me want to know everything about everything. The world doesn’t know a lot about bacteria? I should study it! It’s a part of my whole ‘searching-for-focus’ thing that doesn’t work well because I’m interested in EVERYTHING. I want to find a niche that I can fill; unfortunately the niches that are out there don’t quite mesh with my current education or experience.

I did notice quite a few references in the book to amateurs – people who were in other fields and did science almost as a dedicated hobby, and ended up making amazing discoveries. I don’t know how feasible that would be today. Most of the things that I am interested in (genetics, for example, or astronomy) require equipment that I don’t have access to at this point, and I don’t know how I would be able to get access to it. Maybe I’ll become a mathematical ‘celebrated amateur’ instead. Or a (semi-trained) linguist. (Or maybe I’ll just stick to being a voracious reader of everything that I can get my hands on.)

Overall I liked the book, obviously. Also, I figured out how to read footnotes on the ereader, which is a plus. Science is fascinating, and Bryson makes the history of science accessible. I probably won’t remember some of the names and facts in a week or so – it’s not a textbook, and I wasn’t taking notes or anything – but the love of it definitely will stay with me.

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