Skip to main content

A Tale of 7 Elements – Eric Scerri ***

Eric Scerri, author of this book, is the wizard of the periodic table. He knows more about the chemistry student’s bane, and about elements and their history, than pretty well anyone else, full stop. His book The Periodic Table is the ultimate history of the development of this distinctive layout of the elements showing their relationships. But the blessing of his expertise and knowledge can also be a bit of a curse.
The trouble is, because he does know so much, Scerri does sometimes give us a bit too much detail. In this book, after a couple of chapters introduction to the origins of the periodic table (the least readable part of the book, which he hints you may wish to skip over) he tells us about the discovery of seven ‘missing’ elements, added late to their places in the table: protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium.
What is great about these discoveries is that they aren’t straight forward. Far from it. In fact in many cases there were stumbles along the way, with incorrect claims to have found a missing element, or downright disputes over who got there first. This is a very useful insight into the real nature of scientific discovery – not the cut and dried, steady progress of a school history of science book, but the messy and sometimes downright acrimonious progress of real people making discoveries and desperate to get there first.
There is, obviously, a huge opportunity for storytelling here, but the downside of the approach taken for the non-specialist popular science reader is that, although the personalities are there, we get rather too much of the dry science and step by step analysis of their work, and rather too little of the people and how they interacted. That’s a shame. It doesn’t by any means invalidate the book, but it does mean that it is far more suitable for history of science students and chemists who want to really get into the origins of some of their elements than it is for the general reader who wants to get a better picture of how science really works, along with some interesting history.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…