Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything

Editor’s intro
This illustrated guide to the Periodic Table provides information, history and humor — an interesting read for the science aficionado.

By Tim James • 216 pages; 2019 • Abrams Press, New York, NY

Tim James is an educator, blogger, inventor, and popular science lecturer with degrees in chemistry specializing in computational quantum mechanics. He now teaches high school chemistry and physics. In Elemental, he provides an informative, entertaining, historical, and quirkily illustrated guide to the periodic table that shows how this abstract graphic relates to our day-to-day lives.

James starts with the Greeks, who counted the number of elements on one hand, and progresses to June 2016, when the final four elements of nihonium, moscovium, tennessine, and oganesson completed the periodic chart.

Along the way, James displays his erudition coupled with a rare sense of humor regarding the personalities who have made the discoveries so vital to what we now know about the elements of our universe.  For example, in describing John Dalton, a polymath who taught himself science, mathematics, English, Latin, Greek, and French and achieved the rank of headmaster in his teens, James adds, “Don’t be fooled though. While a fierce academic, Dalton still knew how to have a good time and, like any youngster, spent his free moments collecting samples of swamp gas from local bogs.  Surprisingly, he never married.”

Even more poignant is his brief consideration of the Swedish chemist Carl Scheele, whom James calls the unluckiest man in the history of chemistry. Scheele discovered barium, chlorine, manganese, tungsten, oxygen, and the chemistry for photography, but for one reason or another never received credit for any of them.

Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian scientist, gave us the periodic chart by inventing a game of solitaire based on chemical properties that would establish a pattern about their organization. Mendeleev stayed awake for 3 days and nights before collapsing from exhaustion. While sleeping, he had the most vivid dream of his life with cards dancing and dropping into place perfectly, revealing their pattern. He realized that the elements were arranged in a sequence of increasing mass, and the spaces missing elements were those that had not yet been discovered.

During the 1500s, Germany had a scientific renaissance, and one of the most prominent figures was the Swiss physician Paracelsus. His real name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, and he was the first person to investigate medicine as a science rather than a superstition. HIs most famous dictum is named the Paracelsus principle: “The dose makes the poison.” In other words, whether something is beneficial or harmful is all about the quantity. James avers that even cyanide contained in apple seeds has the potential to kill provided you eat the seeds of 18 apples (assuming radioactive bananas don’t kill you first).

This reviewer has never found as enjoyable a book on science as what James has developed in this tome. His light, elegant, allegro prose combines with brevity and measured tone: humorous but not frivolous, exciting but not sensational, erudite but not academic. This one is a keeper.

Review by Dr. Larry White.


Editor’s call to action
After reading about the history of the Periodic Table, take a look at Dr. Larry White’s interview with Dr. Patrick Brady on the early days of nitinol wire.

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