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Elementary tales

Nature's Building Blocks: An A–Z of the Elements

  • John Emsley
Oxford University Press: 2001. 552 pp. £20

Together with the atom, the elements form the other fundamental paradigm of chemistry. Although the term itself originated with the Greeks, the modern meaning of the word 'element' has gelled only over the past two centuries through the often mind-numbing struggles of pioneering chemists. For the past half-century the picture has been fairly static, apart from the few stragglers at the bottom of the periodic table (pace Glenn Seaborg, discoverer of ten of them) that Tom Lehrer referred to as “those that haven't been discavard”. Although new elements don't turn up that often these days, the hundred or so known elements are so varied in their behaviour, history and applications that it was only a matter of time before someone got stuck in to tell their tales.

Foundations of chemistry: John Dalton's table of the elements, produced in 1805.

Nature's Building Blocks, a layman's field guide to the periodic table, is a direct outgrowth of and companion volume to John Emsley's popular (among chemists, anyway) compendium of numerical data, The Elements (Oxford University Press, 1998). Emsley adopts the discursive approach that was so successful in his Molecules at an Exhibition (Oxford University Press, 1999), and gleefully describes the inhabitants of this world.

What for many might be a dry and dusty collection of facts has been turned into an amusing and finely crafted set of mini-biographies. Each element is introduced by a brief history of its discovery, together with a listing of its names in a number of languages (but why are they mostly European, especially when the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are often identical? Would not Russian, Japanese or Chinese have been more widely useful?). For certain 'old' elements such as sulphur, useful Sanskrit, Hungarian and even Maori names are provided as well. The key physical properties of the element are seldom the first to be listed. Instead, they jockey for pole position with other issues more relevant to real life. Sixteen elements, for example, are singled out as “elements of war”.

For the true magpie, however, the most amusing sections of the book are the text boxes and the little parting shots at the end of each chapter, the “Elements of surprise”. These sections gather together a wild variety of otherwise unclassifiable stories associated with each element. Thus, we learn that indium shrieks when bent, and that magnesium will not ignite on welding. The entry for neon discusses the suggestion that J. Norman Collie, the chemist and mountaineer who succeeded William Ramsay as professor of chemistry at University College London in 1913, might have been a model on whom Arthur Conan Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes. For thallium, a favourite of crime writers, the conviction of Graham Young — through forensic analysis of the cremated remains of one of his victims — provides a cautionary tale. Those whose interests lie in the more lubricious corners of history might have a look at “Mercury in famous men”, which exonerates several individuals unjustly accused of having contracted syphilis. Thus, the elements come alive through stories and anecdotes. Emsley has cast his net wide and drawn on a huge range of material — this is a book for browsing almost at random.

Teachers of chemistry will find the book a marvellous source of titbits that can be used to leaven potentially dry lecture material. But the more general reader will find plenty to be intrigued and amused by. It is odd, however, that the book is almost entirely devoid of illustrations, apart from examples of different layouts of the periodic table (at the very end), and the elegant but repetitive picture of an atom which forms the heading to each chapter. It might have been more helpful to use a small schematic of the periodic table to make it easier to see the connections and relationships between elements. There is also no index, making it tricky to find half-forgotten items.

If one were being uncharitable, one might also point out a few small errors (the lanthanides were discovered in Vaxholm, Sweden, not Vauxholm, which sounds suspiciously like a railway station in south London). And there is the odd howler (is sunlight really yellow because of emission from sodium atoms? Has Emsley forgotten about black-body emission?). Also, some omissions have, no doubt, resulted from an attempt to keep the book to a sensible length.

But these are little more than quibbles. This is a fine, amusing and quirky book that will sit as comfortably on an academic's bookshelf as beside the loo, to be browsed and savoured in idle moments. Can it be long before we see a series on television called “Meetings with remarkable elements”?

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Sella, A. Elementary tales. Nature 414, 20 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35102105

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