The 13th Element

The 13th Element: the Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus, by John Emsley

Everything you ever wanted to know about phosphorus, plus bonus material!  Phosphorus was discovered in the 1600s by alchemists searching for that ever-elusive philosopher's stone.  It glows in the dark, it burns spontaneously in air, it's very poisonous and yet it's necessary to all life on earth, so phosphorus is pretty interesting stuff.

Emsley, a British university-type person, gives us an exhaustive history of phosphorus; it's interesting but a little too much information for most people.  There's a lot about alchemy and match factories--especially, of course, the dreaded phossy jaw, which was fascinating but don't try to read it over lunch, which I did--and then horrific descriptions of phosphorus bombs and nerve gasses.  Even murder and industrial accidents get their own chapters.

There is quite a bit of good information about the necessity of phosphorus in nature, and also about ecological concerns.  Phosphorus is very poisonous, but usually (not always) easily oxidizes into harmless compounds fairly quickly.  You might remember that there used to be environmental concerns about phosphates, which Emsley explains turned out to be both much more complex than first realized and also mostly a problem with heavy metals and other types of industrial pollutants. 

And finally (!) there is a chapter on possible explanations for spontaneous human combustion, or just plain human combustion with an igniting factor.  Wow.

Throughout, Emsley tries to emphasize phosphorus' "evil" side.  You'll note that the book's title is The 13th Element, and this is because it was the 13th element identified as such by Lavoisier.  Phosphorus is number 15 on the periodic table so that title threw me a bit at first, but Em
sley is trying to use it to set the tone of the book.  Personally I would have preferred less of the 13/evil theme, but hey, I can see where he might need a hook to sell the book!

This was a fine, fairly interesting, but sometimes overly long book.  You know I like books about chemistry, so I was predisposed to be pleased, and mostly I was--but it got boring in spots.


  1. I keep meaning to read a book about the periodic table, but I don't know what a good one would be. I like science but I feel like a whole book focusing on just one element at a time might be too much phosphorus for me. :p

  2. Yeah, do not start with this one! Try Uncle Tungsten or Primo Levi"s book to start with, they are both great.


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