Recommended read: Periodic Tales
Each month, Muskeg Press will review one of our favourite books that we have on our bookshelf.
We hope these reviews reinforce a love of literature for our readers, or perhaps give you some ideas for the next book on your list to read.
Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Penguin Books, 2012: 428 pages
The physicist Richard Feynman, who worked on the Manhattan Project and won the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, conducted a thought experiment of sorts in his book Six Easy Pieces. What if, he wondered, all our scientific knowledge was completely wiped out, except for one single sentence? If we had the choice, what would we want that sentence to say, something that reveals the mysteries and marvels of science in one brief passage? Feynman’s choice was: “Everything is made of atoms.”
When you think about it, that is pretty mind-blowing. Everything we see, everything we touch, many things we can’t see, everything that composes matter. It’s all made of atoms. Ten-to-the-gajillion atoms, tiny little particles with tinier particles inside of them: protons, neutrons, electrons.
When those atoms are grouped together and they can’t be reduced any further, science anoints them elements. And the stories of how humankind has manipulated, crushed, burned, exploded, melted, oxidized, admired and glorified those elements is the subject of Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements.
The ways those substances were discovered were mostly messy, with lots of dead ends and wrong conclusions, which is in stark contrast to the Periodic Table of the Elements itself – that jigsaw-like collection of squares that make everything look so orderly. Here’s hydrogen and helium, right at the top as the most abundant materials in the universe, their capital H’s standing sentry on opposite ends. There are gold, lead, silver, tin, with the unintuitive letters in their squares, which you quickly learn are abbreviations derived from their Greek and Roman nomenclatures. There are those rows that squeeze in underneath the table, with hundreds of electrons orbiting hundreds of protons, which come and disappear quickly, and which few humans have actually seen through an electron microscope.
But as Aldersey-Williams shows, the discovery of the elements didn’t come nicely-packaged. Indeed, he structures his book in a seemingly haphazard manner; instead of going in the order from the table – hydrogen, helium, lithium, etc. – he slots them into five main categories: power, fire, craft, beauty, and Earth. As a trained chemist, he admires the logic of the periodic table, but, he writes, it doesn’t really exist.
"A few chemists might deny it, but it is only a construct, a mnemonic that arrays the elements in a particularly clever way so as to reveal certain commonalities among them. Yet there’s no actual law against arranging the elements by different rules."
That’s not to say there’s no science in the book. Aldersey-Williams talks about a Periodic Table he assembled in his youth, with the help of his father. Some elements were easy to find – tin from a can of fish, carbon scraped from charcoal – but some were a bit too unstable and some had only ever been seen for a few seconds by a few lucky scientists.
For the most part, though, this book is a cultural study of the elements, showing how their discovery and manufacture have influenced us from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. Aldersey-Williams’ enthusiasm for the elements shines as bright as silver, and his writing is very accessible, making the book a quick and wondrous read.
But perhaps I should let the elements speak for themselves. In the first section of the book, Aldersey-Williams talks about those elements that have bestowed great power on our species. In some cases, that power was based on some arbitrary value we gave to them: gold might be shiny without the tendency to tarnish, but it wasn’t all that useful to the Old World inhabitants of Cuba and Puerto Rico, who cared more for the Spaniards’ brass that reflected the sun nicely. Platinum, though relatively abundant, nevertheless surpassed gold as record companies used it to brag about how many records were sold by a particular artist. Some elements were used for their destructive power, so nations could reign over nations. Iron, an unbending metal, was used to forge swords and other weapons of war; later, with the power of microscopes, scientists found that the element was in the very blood that it spilled in countless conflicts, and is indeed what gives our blood its red colour. Likewise, the race to find plutonium and thus create an atomic bomb would create the superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union, whose Cold War lasted for most of the last half of the 20th century.
The sense of power spills into the second section of the book, “fire,” which starts with the stink of sulphur, found in so many Biblical passages, not to mention gunpowder and the tips of matches. Phosphorous’ story of discovery is one of the most charmingly disgusting in the book – a clever alchemist found it using a very extensive process to extract it from his pee – but Aldersey-Williams does not let us forget that it was also used during the Second World War, when it was used by the British to firebomb Hamburg, melting about 50,000 Germans. Oxygen and chlorine are highly reactive and two-faced: they can rejuvenate and cleanse, but oxygen ages us and chlorine was used to gas thousands of soldiers to death in the First World War.
We get a break from all this gore and power-lust in the next two sections of the book, “craft” and “beauty.” It starts with good ol’ tin, which although very unsexy is very reliable and consistent: a hospital in London opened a tin can with fish 20 years after it was first packaged, and the food still tasted good. The multifarious uses of copper, from conductivity to malleability, helped build the first transatlantic cables and is still used to conduct electricity into your house today. Spreading calcium on anything turns it white, and in its marble state it has been used by sculptors from Michelangelo to Rodin to create breathtaking works of art. Aluminum (or is it aluminium?) and zinc, though stolid and a bit boring, are used in batteries and the foil around your food in the fridge. Sheets of titanium are not only welded together into airplanes, but they were also used by architect Frank Gehry to build the stunning Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. It seems this relatively new metal has many uses, but, as Aldersey-Williams points out, “it seems too soon to tell where titanium will find its place.”
Indeed, the elements have their own individual journeys through history and geography, and as a group they also find their way in our culture. Aldersey-Williams’ book ends with a journey in the section titled “Earth,” where he travels to Sweden, a small country whose scientists managed to discover one-fifth of the naturally-occurring elements found on the Periodic Table. During the years of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, the brain centres of London and Paris raced to extract and discover all the elements, but Sweden outstripped them.
Such is the nature of the elements: just when we think we know what they’re about, they find a way to surprise us. And that is as much a consequence of our perceptions as the very properties of the elements themselves. "They rise and fall with the tides of cultural whim,” writes Aldersey-Williams. Through that rising and falling, through the journeys they take through culture, their personalities are revealed, and they reflect back the meaning we put upon our own existence. But those personalities we bequeath them are only temporary: we won't be here forever, but the elements have been here since the Big Bang, and they’ll be here even after our planet is consumed by our dying sun, billions of years from now.