Friday, August 17, 2012

Periodic Tales

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

I just love books like this, especially when they're about chemistry. (Also: such a pretty cover!)  Aldersey-Williams meanders around the periodic table, giving us history, cultural meanings and associations, and science in about equal portions, with the odd personal story thrown in for fun.  He divides the book into five sections called Power, Beauty, Craft, Fire, and Earth, and so there is a certain amount of coherence in the narrative.   Since everything is made of elements, elements show up everywhere and the book has a little bit of everything.  It's very fun.

Aldersey-Williams is quite funny as well.  I enjoyed his style and some of his stories made me laugh out loud.  In a section about the discovery of iodine, he talks about Humphrey Davy's trip to France, which was both a scientific trip and a honeymoon journey.  Davy thought science ought to bridge the animosity between England and France, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it, and "Jane Davy, meanwhile, shocked passers-by in the Tuileries Gardens with her unfashionably tiny hat."

Just a few pages later, he decides to do some chemical experiments of his own and uses some carbon tetrachloride. "This sweet-smelling but unlovely chemical--carcinogenic and ozone-depleting--is practically unobtainable these days, but I have found some in my father's comprehensive selection of dodgy solvents."  That particularly tickled me as I have a father who probably has some dodgy solvents of his own hidden away.

This was a really great book.  I'm hoping that my 12-year-old will be able to read it this year, since she's studying chemistry in school, but it might be a bit above her.  The material is often a bit more complex than she's used to, but I hope she'll stick it out and enjoy it. 

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