The Utter and Cultural History of the Elements

Periodic Tales: the Curious lives of the Elements

Hugh Aldersey-Williams

I restrain myself from giving this book review a much referenced title: “the stuff things are made of”, but that title would fit any book on the elements, as eloquently put on the back cover of this neatly designed book. “Everything is made of them, from the furthest reaches of the universe to this book that you hold in your hands, including you.”

Hugh Aldersey-Williams(HAW) informs simply in his mono tone website that he was born in the year 1959, the same year C.P Snow gave a lecture on the division between science and culture, if I had read the author bio before reading the book, this wouldn’t have made much sense to me, but author seems to be the kind of romantic who takes pride in riding those two diverse fields side by side.

But what are the elements, if they do not say much about the people that use them. HAW’s Scottie Ferguson like obsession with the elements begin with the periodic table and his memory of a periodic table “like an altar screen” behind his teacher’s desk. Right from the beginning HAW tries successfully to draw on the importance of the elements by tracing its cultural origins and backlashes.

For the periodic table itself he takes us through a lithograph by artist Simon Patterson in which Cr does not stand for chromium but Julie Christie, in which the artist tries to find bizarre connections between the positions and the elements occupied by it. A recurring theme however is HAW’s quest to build his own periodic table physically; he pops up here and there to collect samples for the same. A visual periodic table merely wouldn’t help him know more about the substance.

But proceed he does, not in order; but by the stories that go behind them.

Never dipping in interest, the book uses Dr Strangelove to explain halogens, fireworks for pottasium and Jean Cocteau’s Orphee for mercury. It is not just the cinematic references HAW inserts in the book, but also from literature, art and architecture and how these elements shaped the thinking of man and the things he did with them.

For a man who likes to read about people, this book is a treasure trove but for a man with a memory capacity of a damaged alarm clock, it is a bane. This book requires a separate companion for the number of anecdotes it reminisces and better appreciated when read not as a paperback thriller through the whole night; the book’s 500 odd pages deserve some place on your bookshelf.

HAW’s infectious liking for the elements also spills over to the lives of chemists and mineralogists and the sadness of these professionals in not being in the same level of coolness as that of say theoretical physicists or mathematicians

I have a liking towards science which isn’t very academic, though I could never embrace the greatness of the things which were taught to me at school, simply because we were not made aware of their importance, but only to learn equations by rote. Their significance disappeared immediately after the examination bell, but it would be going a bit further in claiming ‘Periodic Tales’ will take the place of a textbook. For me a text book will always be boring and only a secondary source of learning, and a man who would want to know, will always look elsewhere.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is the author of ‘The most beautiful molecule’ and ‘New American Design’

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