Periodic Tales: a Cultural History of the Elements, From Arsenic to Zinc
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Nonfiction / Scientific History
I’ve always been more interested in people than science, so I like coming at science from the side, through the stories of scientists. It’s why I ADORED Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and giggled my way through Mary Roach’s Bonk. Periodic Tales was billed as a very similar book, but focused on the chemicals that make up the Period Table.
It does tell the stories of the elements and their discoveries. It is quite good. But it has neither the feeling of close friends gossiping that characterizes Mary Roach’s book, or the enthralling storytelling of Bill Bryson. It took me nearly a month to read, a few pages at a time while I ate my breakfast or lunch, whereas I could barely put down either of the other two.
The author tends to rhapsodize about the cultural significance of some of the elements to a rather boring degree, honestly. This was especially evident – and uncomfortable – in the section on calcium. Aldersey-Williams goes on quite the tangent about how calcium/lime is used to make things white, and white is the color of purity, and so calcium is linked with purity, and quotes Melville’s Moby Dick, saying “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls.” This goes on for two entire pages, and nowhere in this sermon on the purity and superiority of whiteness is race mentioned. Anywhere. On one hand, you could say since race is never mentioned, it’s not a screed on white superiority, on the other hand, it’s not denied, either. How did this get past an editor? None of the rest of the book implies racial discrimination, but that section had me side-eyeing the book hard.
It’s a good book for what it is, though a little long-winded. Between the weird section on calcium and the general boring-ness of the writing, I don’t think I can recommend it. Though it does have me thinking I should re-read A Short History of Nearly Everything.
From the cover of Periodic Tales:
Like the alphabet, the calendar, or the zodiac, the periodic table of the chemical elements has a permanent place in our imagination. But aside from the handful of common ones (iron, carbon, copper, gold), the elements themselves remain wrapped in mystery. We do not know what most of them look like, how they exist in nature, how they got their names, or of what use they are to us. Welcome to a dazzling tour through history and literature, science and art. In Periodic Tales, you’ll meet iron that rains from the heavens and neon as it lights its way to vice. You’ll learn how lead can tell your future and why zinc may one day line your coffin. You’ll discover what connects the bones in your body with the White House in Washington, the glow of a streetlight with the salt on your dinner table.
From ancient civilizations to contemporary couture, from the oxygen of publicity to the phosphorous in your pee, the elements are near and far and all around us. Unlocking their astonishing secrets and colorful pasts, Periodic Tales is a passionate journey through mines and artists’ studios, to factories and cathedrals, into the woods and to the sea to discover the true stories of these fascinating but mysterious building blocks of the universe.