Georgia from My Favorite Murder recommended Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, which is one of my favorite books in my CBR history. So when she recommended a book about the history of the periodic table of the elements, I decided to check it out despite its non-fictionness. I was expecting stories that just happened to tie in elements, but this is straight up history. Who discovered which elements, how they did it, how those elements are used today, who won which Nobel Prize, and so forth. So it’s super educational!
The author does a good job of making all this science as relatable as possible, and tying in interesting tidbits along the way. For example, Brits call it “aluminium” because it sits on the periodic table next to barium, magnesium, and other ‘iums.’ But the American who invented the process to make it easy to work with and usable in everyday items like soda cans called it “aluminum,” because this newfangled stuff was going to be as valuable as platinum. So that’s why we pronounce it differently! And one scientist who thought the lady in charge of his boarding house was reusing leftovers a little too long spiked Monday’s meatloaf with ‘hot lead’ and then ran a geiger counter over Friday’s stew to prove that the meat wasn’t fresh (which probably made Tuesday-Thursday’s meals a little unhealthier as well).
Some other fun quotes and tidbits:
- About the guy who created the periodic table trying to claim credit for the discovery of a new element: “This betrays a flabbergasting amount of gall, but Mendeleev was always willing to bend nature to fit his grand philosophical scheme.”
- “Stars that sit bovinely for aeons, chewing hydrogen cud, are transformed more profoundly than any alchemist would have dared dream.” (About what happens when helium burns out of stars.)
- “Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius.” (Scientists are petty bitches, y’all.)
- “Quantum mechanics: a bizarre but beautiful way to talk about matter.”
One minor quibble – I had to check the publication date on this, because there were a couple spots where I had to stop and think “whoa, that is not how we say that anymore.” Of course, I didn’t mark any of those pages so I can’t give examples, but a book published in 2010 should be a little more aware of how to use inclusive, “PC” language.
I did end up skimming some of the super detailed electrons/protons/atoms stuff, but overall, this was a surprisingly readable book about the history of the periodic table.