Monday, January 8, 2018

Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Interesting trivia lacking structure
In his 2011 book Periodic Tales, science journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams delves deeply into the history, science, and lore of the periodic table and the chemical elements catalogued within it. As an avid collector of element samples, Aldersey-Williams applies his acquisitive enthusiasm for the subject to his research, tracking down sundry data on each element with thoroughness and verve. If you are at all fascinated by the fundamental building blocks of matter, this book will certainly teach you much on the subject. Its main fault, however, is that it fails to give any coherent structure to what feels like a collection of miscellaneous tangential anecdotes.

The subtitle of Periodic Tales proclaims it a “Cultural History,” a phrase which in this case seems intended to relinquish the responsibility of being a science book and give Aldersey-Williams license to write whatever he feels like. The contents of the book are arranged very haphazardly, making it feel like a collection of unrelated magazine articles, similar to what you might find in a National Geographic but not quite as engaging. Much of what you’ll read in this book seems like it could be postscripted with the phrase, “. . . but I digress.” When Aldersey-Williams sticks to science history and discusses how the elements were discovered, isolated, or in some cases created, or how they are utilized in industry, the book is really quite fascinating, but when he goes off on the perceived gender of a particular element, an instance where an element is mentioned in a poem, or how a relatively unknown contemporary artist made a sculpture out of some weird metal, interest quickly wanes. At one point he interviews someone who lives in a town that’s mentioned in a Thomas Hardy novel, and he spends two pages talking about this novel, even though it has nothing to do with the elements. What it all adds up to is fuel for some future game of Trivial Pursuit, but even after having just finished the book I find myself struggling to remember much of the details because they weren’t presented in any sort of cohesively organized narrative.

The book is divided into five sections which could not be more arbitrary—Power, Fire, Craft, Beauty, and Earth. Because the author often discusses more than one element in each chapter, he can’t present them in order by atomic number, but couldn’t he at least have arranged them by chemical family? Or why not go with a chronological organization, from ancient alchemy to contemporary nuclear physics? Wouldn’t that have been a better way for the reader to experience the “Cultural History” promised by the subtitle?

Aldersey-Williams is a Brit, and the book appears to have been written for a British audience. That’s not a criticism, just a clarification for American readers, who won’t always get the author’s jokes or pop culture references. That won’t hinder your overall understanding of the text. He conducts most of his research and interviews in Britain, though he does travel elsewhere in the world when the elements lead him there.

For the most part I enjoyed reading Periodic Tales, but the disjointed patchwork approach made it feel like a long haul. If you’re really interested in chemistry and enjoy reading about the history of science you will find much to like here, but there will likely also be moments when you’ll question the relevance of what you’re reading and wonder if it’s worth your time.
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