Periodic Tales

 A fascinating but not quite arresting compendium of element-related facts.

Periodic Tales highlights one of the cardinal problems of reading for knowledge. The simple fact of the matter is that people who like to read widely will probably forget most of what they read, unless they are singularly invested in the subject matter (i.e. “geeks”) or have some form of eidetic memory (which, in any case, is supposed to be one of those medical myths).

Periodic Tales is a book about the elements of the periodic table for the general public, written by such a geek. Hugh Aldersey-Williams admits an endless fascination with the elements, and is possessed of a collector’s instinct – both for the physical elements themselves, as well as the crust of historical and literary associations that are deposited around them during the decades, centuries and millennia of their use.

The book comprises many short chapters, each of which is either about one element or a group of elements. Aldersey-Williams explores the ways in which human cultures have interacted with the elements and their various compound forms. A common theme that runs through each elemental portrait is that elements gain certain cultural connotations that arise out of their physical, chemical, and teleological properties. These connotations become enshrined in cultural and literary traditions. Gold and silver, for example, have long been associated in Western culture with the masculine and the feminine respectively, the metals of the sun and the moon. Silver, in particular, is associated with virginal purity; it shines with a smooth blue sheen in its pure form but turns to black as it tarnishes – a metaphor for the corruptibility of human nature. Some connotations transcend culture and become near universal – iron is always the metal connoting strength and hardness, for example, and its rust runs red as the blood it has spilled. It’s a meme that has made endless forays into literature and pop culture to the extent that it has become folkloric in its ubiquity. Aldersey-Williams performs this analysis, as it were, on many of the elements with which humanity has had the most sustained contact.

Aldersey-Williams also celebrates the historical context in which other, newer elements were discovered – and of their discoverers, whether chemists who isolated the elements in their labs, the mineralogists who found their naturally-occurring compounds in the wild, or the physicists who synthesized them with atom bombardment. Discovering an element must have been one of the most sublime scientific experiences back when the periodic table was largely unfilled – the frenetic activity of lone chemists in their labs and the feeling of ecstasy at finding an element that no one had ever known of before. It is an experience not easily recaptured in these latter days of science by committee, in which discoveries are really just filling in the expected empty spaces of the periodic table. But perhaps the spark of wonderment still exists with the potential that some new element will not fit the periodic table, and therefore revolutionize chemistry.

Aldersey-William’s prose glows with genteel enthusiasm about the subject matter. Although the informational flow can get dauntingly large, with so many elements to talk about, the book serves, at the macro level, to instill the understanding of just how deep the relationship is between humankind and the elements – in terms of their use, history, and aesthetic and cultural connotations. But you do feel a little bit “elemented out” after it all.

Some Interesting Elemental Facts from the Book:

1. The rare earth metals are not so rare, but many of them were discovered in one place – Uppsala, Sweden, whose unique geological surroundings and nose-to-the-grindstone approach to chemistry gave such people as Carl Mosander the patience to isolate, in painstaking fashion, these hard-to-separate elements. In particular, the village of Ytterby gave the world 7 new elements: and in one spectacularly unoriginal act of nomenclature, 4 rare earths are named after this town: yttrium, terbium, erbium, and ytterbium.

2. Aluminum, the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, was once so valuable that Napoleon III gave aluminum utensils to his most honored guests during his banquets (where others would only get gold or silver), and aluminum tops the Washington Monument. It was valuable only because it was hard to synthesize before the invention of electrolytic techniques to liberate aluminum from its ore.

3. One possible explanation for Napoleon’s death on St. Helena is arsenic – but not because he was assassinated, a popular conspiracy theory, but because the humidity on the island made the wallpaper, which had arsenic-based pigments in it that could turn to gas under the right conditions. Or it could’ve been dysentery. Who knows.

4.The cheap shine of our chromium-plated taps and household implements was one defining symbol of gilded-age America and Art Deco style, as seen in the prominent fins of a Buick or Cadillac of the era. Now chrome is as banal as they come, but still has that faint sheen of middle-class aspiration.

5. Fittingly, europium is used to create special inks used on Euro banknotes to prevent counterfeiting. The author is unsure if this was a deliberate decision.

6. The sickly yellow light at some streetlamps is due to the sodium used in them, which shines at one wavelength, and has been used in film and literature to characterize noir and urban decay.

7. Radium, that radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie, used to be causally incorporated into all sorts of daily products – like toothpaste, in the belief that it had therapeutic powers.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 bunsen burners

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