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Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc

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In the spirit of A Short History of Nearly Everything comes Periodic Tales. Award-winning science writer Hugh Andersey-Williams offers readers a captivating look at the elements—and the amazing, little-known stories behind their discoveries. Periodic Tales is an energetic and wide-ranging book of innovations and innovators, of superstition and science and the myriad ways t In the spirit of A Short History of Nearly Everything comes Periodic Tales. Award-winning science writer Hugh Andersey-Williams offers readers a captivating look at the elements—and the amazing, little-known stories behind their discoveries. Periodic Tales is an energetic and wide-ranging book of innovations and innovators, of superstition and science and the myriad ways the chemical elements are woven into our culture, history, and language. It will delight readers of Genome, Einstein’s Dreams, Longitude, and The Age of Wonder. 


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In the spirit of A Short History of Nearly Everything comes Periodic Tales. Award-winning science writer Hugh Andersey-Williams offers readers a captivating look at the elements—and the amazing, little-known stories behind their discoveries. Periodic Tales is an energetic and wide-ranging book of innovations and innovators, of superstition and science and the myriad ways t In the spirit of A Short History of Nearly Everything comes Periodic Tales. Award-winning science writer Hugh Andersey-Williams offers readers a captivating look at the elements—and the amazing, little-known stories behind their discoveries. Periodic Tales is an energetic and wide-ranging book of innovations and innovators, of superstition and science and the myriad ways the chemical elements are woven into our culture, history, and language. It will delight readers of Genome, Einstein’s Dreams, Longitude, and The Age of Wonder. 

30 review for Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc

  1. 4 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    Updated 6/29/13 - see link at bottom This book is one of the reasons people will occasionally look at you, slack-jawed, and say “How did you know that?” There are a few greater feelings in life, but not many. A-W picks a few dozen of the 118 known elements and tells us a bit about them, offering stories that might be about their discovery, how they are used, or other cultural looks-see. There is unevenness, to be sure. Some stories are more interesting than others, but the overall level is quite Updated 6/29/13 - see link at bottom This book is one of the reasons people will occasionally look at you, slack-jawed, and say “How did you know that?” There are a few greater feelings in life, but not many. A-W picks a few dozen of the 118 known elements and tells us a bit about them, offering stories that might be about their discovery, how they are used, or other cultural looks-see. There is unevenness, to be sure. Some stories are more interesting than others, but the overall level is quite good, informative and entertaining. But wait, there’s more. For those of us with an affection for literary treasure-hunting, it is time to pick up some of the glowing tablets suspended in the air. A-W offers explanations and reference points for how certain materials are viewed culturally. For instance gold goes with power, iron with strength, grave lead, honest tin, virtuous silver, this is feminine, that is masculine, and so on. This is mother’s milk for those trying to ferret out elements of meaning in literature. You will learn about the first use of carbonated water, the derivation of the word tinker, which substance is known as “liquid fire”, some alarming facts about things that glow in the dark. We think of titanium as a material used in jets or rockets, but did you know that titanium oxide is widely used to make white paint? Metals come into and pass out of fashion. One particular poison was in such widespread use that it became known as “inheritance powder”. Why was there such a concentration of element discoveries in Norway? A-W has enough material here about color that he could write an entire book on the subject, and I hope he does. If you enjoy learning new things, Periodic Tales will tickle your brain, right down to the atoms. It’s elementary. ==============================EXTRA STUFF An article in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic looked at what was happening with creation of new elements. Fascinating material.

  2. 4 out of 5

    D Books

    The author goes off in too many directions with his story-telling for me to want to stick to reading his book. I read over a hundred pages and can't seem to find it interesting due to how the author goes about writing it. From memories of gathering as many elements of the periodic table during his childhood, to drawn out stories of how a present day person is producing charcoal, to historical tales of elements, and then to the author personally experimenting to abstract an element. It makes you The author goes off in too many directions with his story-telling for me to want to stick to reading his book. I read over a hundred pages and can't seem to find it interesting due to how the author goes about writing it. From memories of gathering as many elements of the periodic table during his childhood, to drawn out stories of how a present day person is producing charcoal, to historical tales of elements, and then to the author personally experimenting to abstract an element. It makes you want to beg the author to please pick a style of writing and stick with it. I'm going to find it hard to pick this book up again to finish.

  3. 4 out of 5

    John

    My loyal readers know that I have a thing about not rehashing the plots of fiction novels. Unfortunately, however, I did not take notes as I went along with this book, so I don't have specific examples of the author's success in carrying out his objective. In brief, I'm just going to say that he manages quite well to work in some of the more obscure, lesser known elements along with the big names successfully, though there's not much one can do with some of the modern, synthetic ones produced in My loyal readers know that I have a thing about not rehashing the plots of fiction novels. Unfortunately, however, I did not take notes as I went along with this book, so I don't have specific examples of the author's success in carrying out his objective. In brief, I'm just going to say that he manages quite well to work in some of the more obscure, lesser known elements along with the big names successfully, though there's not much one can do with some of the modern, synthetic ones produced in a lab. I felt he did a terrific job with using the periodic table as a framework to discuss history and sociology as well, making the book quite approachable for a general reader with limited scientific background. A couple of times he tries to recreate certain findings himself at home, as well as visiting famous chemical locations, which come across as genuine curiosity rather than fulfilling a book contract, or just a dilettante exercise in general. I would highly recommend this book to readers over other similar ones which have a much more scientific focus, checking off elements on a list. Highly recommended. Final note that if you're thinking about this one as a library book, might want to factor in needing a renewal as well.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    This wasn't quite as engaging to me as the blurb and the reviews quoted on the cover suggests -- in fact, it started to feel rather meandering -- but it is quite an interesting read, covering both the scientific history of elements, how and when they were discovered, and the social histories, why they were used and for what. Some facts I didn't know; other parts I got impatient with: yes, yes, I know all that. Overall, worth a read if it sounds interesting to you, but be prepared to skip bits whe This wasn't quite as engaging to me as the blurb and the reviews quoted on the cover suggests -- in fact, it started to feel rather meandering -- but it is quite an interesting read, covering both the scientific history of elements, how and when they were discovered, and the social histories, why they were used and for what. Some facts I didn't know; other parts I got impatient with: yes, yes, I know all that. Overall, worth a read if it sounds interesting to you, but be prepared to skip bits where he's telling you things you're not interested in/already know.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    I will admit that I am starting to get a bit weary of popular science books. Do not get me wrong being trained as a chemist and working in science and engineering for many years I find these books fascinating. The problem lies in the fact that the subject is so huge they have to give a hook, something personal that will get the reading not only interested but also to connect with the book. Now I will admit I have read my fair shore of this type of book only to realise I either have nothing in co I will admit that I am starting to get a bit weary of popular science books. Do not get me wrong being trained as a chemist and working in science and engineering for many years I find these books fascinating. The problem lies in the fact that the subject is so huge they have to give a hook, something personal that will get the reading not only interested but also to connect with the book. Now I will admit I have read my fair shore of this type of book only to realise I either have nothing in common with the writer or worse still I actually disagree with them - so why would I waste my time and effort in reading their book. Sadly it seems that there are more than their fair share of these books out there. But not with this one. Basically you have a scientists who not only knows what he is talking about but also how to present it in an accessible and fun manner he has also had experience on how to create displays and exhibits so he knows how to keep your attention. So what of the book then - well you have several layers to this book. The first is that of the story of him deciding to create his own collection of elements from periodic table, now some are incredibly easy to source others are near on impossible. But you also have historical stories of the elements. However rather than just dry stories of their discovery and who made them there are also side stories about how they were used or even how they became famous and had their 15minutes of fame (from St Pauls cathedral to Napoleons death). Each chapter and even each sub-section tells a fun and fascinating tale along the way while we watch the author try (and sometimes fail) to add another element to his collection. I will admit this was a total gamble although I am sure I recognised the title from somewhere - however I am very glad I did and I am sure I will be referring back to this book again in the future.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    A disappointment. I picked this up thinking it might be weirdly informative and entertaining, like Bill Bryson's wonderfully entertaining science history "A Short History of Nearly Everything." But in the end I found almost all the anecdotes lifeless and pointless. Ultimately I gave up and put it back on the shelf about two-thirds through. A disappointment. I picked this up thinking it might be weirdly informative and entertaining, like Bill Bryson's wonderfully entertaining science history "A Short History of Nearly Everything." But in the end I found almost all the anecdotes lifeless and pointless. Ultimately I gave up and put it back on the shelf about two-thirds through.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bettie

    (view spoiler)[ Bettie's Books (hide spoiler)] (view spoiler)[ Bettie's Books (hide spoiler)]

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Nguyen

    Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales tells the story of the cultural history of the elements separated in five topics, the subjects of the book which are: power, the richness of the element or how valuable it is; fire, the changes of compounds when they react with other compounds like water; craft, the way people can manipulate the elements; beauty, the appearance of an element and how elements color our world, and earth, how an element affected a certain place or how the place affected an el Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales tells the story of the cultural history of the elements separated in five topics, the subjects of the book which are: power, the richness of the element or how valuable it is; fire, the changes of compounds when they react with other compounds like water; craft, the way people can manipulate the elements; beauty, the appearance of an element and how elements color our world, and earth, how an element affected a certain place or how the place affected an element. The book is set in from way back earlier than 1600 B.C.E. to 2011, when the book was published, at no particular place, but mostly in Europe, where many pure elements were discovered and where several elements were synthesized, because multiple scientists from different countries contributed in the world of science. Telling many stories about the elements, including his own, Aldersey-Williams researches information about the elements, conducts a few of his own experiments, and presents us many elements' histories. He speaks about the history of the elements and his past related to the them, interesting stories about elements that we use today like gold, silver, and mercury, which was used in movies for a certain special effect. A very memorable event for me was a short section called "Pee is for Phosphorus." After telling us a story of how a scientist used fifty liters of urine for an experiment to see if phosphorus is in our urine, Aldersey-Williams conducted a similar experiment with his old teacher, but with less than fifty liters for a quicker completion rate. He followed the same procedure with some modifications but can't seem to extract the phosphorus out. He then theorizes that phosphorus was extracted, but in very small amounts. This was memorable because of the experiment and the weird title of the section. Ultimately, the story of the history of the elements is a story of scientists, like Marie Curie, discovering new elements, updating Mendeleev's period table to the periodic table we know today, experimenting with elements to learn new things, and manipulating elements for our personal gains, like using arsenic either for medication or assassination. It all adds up to a tale of cultural history, a subject that our generation wouldn't be very interested in, but it does educates readers of the usefulness of everyday elements or elements we used to use in the past. Periodic Tales tells that story very descriptively, reminding us how often we take advantage of our everyday objects, and how little we know about them, like how do they work, who invented them, or what they are made of. I learned a lot of things thanks to this book. It is practically a science book for college students. I learned what explodes when reacted with water, what makes our streetlights glow, what makes an object a certain color, and what possibly killed Napoleon (undetermined if it was the actual cause of death). Also, I learned some chemistry terms. This book made me change what I read because I really want to read interesting facts now, either from the internet or from a book. I need to expand my horizon of what I read because someday, the information I gained could help me later in the future. Unfortunately, this book isn't one of those books that's like an emotional roller coaster ride. This book is somewhat monotone, but I felt amazed, confused, and bored while reading this. Of course, I had "Whoa, really?" moments when I read something very interesting, but I also had "Huh?" and "Zzz" moments because of the uninteresting facts or the complicated chemistry terms that I don't understand. Even though I had confused and bored moments, I enjoyed reading about a quarter to half of the book, but the rest gave me a headache like the after-effect of a sugar rush. Periodic Tales is a rather lengthy book that talks so much about the elements. This book has too much information for an average person, especially someone who doesn't understand chemistry that well. Generally, I would not recommend this book because it has so many facts, confusing segments, and requires some knowledge of chemistry. Although some of the information was interesting, most of the other information felt boring to me. I would recommend this book to people who wants to grow up to be some type of scientist, people who's great in science, or people who really want to learn more about the elements.

  9. 4 out of 5

    ^

    An extremely enjoyable book. To date it’s the closest I’ve found to one of my absolute favorite childhood books, passed down to me, long since mislaid; the title and author of which I cannot remember. That book had a red cover. Inside there were the most marvelous stories of the discovery of (amongst others) the composition of air (Scheele, Cavandish, Lavoisier), the alkali-earth metals (Davy), and helium (Kirchoff & Bunsen) in our Sun. Mr Aldersey-Williams’ select bibliography now strongly and An extremely enjoyable book. To date it’s the closest I’ve found to one of my absolute favorite childhood books, passed down to me, long since mislaid; the title and author of which I cannot remember. That book had a red cover. Inside there were the most marvelous stories of the discovery of (amongst others) the composition of air (Scheele, Cavandish, Lavoisier), the alkali-earth metals (Davy), and helium (Kirchoff & Bunsen) in our Sun. Mr Aldersey-Williams’ select bibliography now strongly and helpfully points me in the direction of I Nechaev’s 1942 book “Chemical Elements” (or rather of the translation from the Russian), as being my long-lost book. ‘Periodic Tales’ adopts Nechaev’s central thesis; to describe the sheer human and technological excitement of the discovery of the chemical elements. Unsurprisingly, there is considerably more to say in 2011 than in 1942; and not only about the fleeting fascinating existences of the man-made transuranic elements; where physicists have gracelessly elbowed the chemists out of the party. Mr Aldersey-Williams’ writes for an adult, or interested teenager, audience, whereas I was reading Nechaev whilst still in primary (age 6-11) education. ‘Periodic Tales’ is wider, deeper, and longer; dipping into literature, mining, cookery, war, oceanography, classical history, Christianity, art, materials science, architecture …. That is by no means a comprehensive list. I was aware of reading this book in a slightly detached manner, probably because much of the fact contained was not new to me. After I graduated in analytical chemistry I found rewarding work as a research scientist. Within the pages of this book I experienced the very same interest, excitement, and knowledge which first sparked my interest in chemistry (and associated sciences) all those years ago. Therein too, lay my only disappointment. A very serious disappointment. Why, oh why have the illustrations been printed in low resolution black and white; and within the text too. OK, I do know why. It’s considerably cheaper to do that in preference to bound-in high resolution black and white images on high quality gloss paper. But by choosing to make such false economies the publisher has not only grave insulted the author’s fruitful work, but also every reader of this book. So 4 stars, not 5. With quality illustrations I would have bought a copy of this book; instead I borrowed a copy from my local public library. Returning to the author’s wonderful text; this is a book to read and savor at leisure, not in haste. I usually hate over-frequent picking up, reading, and putting a book down, but I think ‘Periodic Tales’ actually benefits from periodic pauses, so as to enable the brain to fully enjoy thinking through what has just been read, together with associated connections and ramifications. Like a box of good chocolates, this book is definitely best savored and long-lingered over. Just keep the ‘phone number of a good independent travel agent to hand. I’d never before thought of ‘Element’ tourism (see pg 378 on) … but after nowt but a modicum of thought, I can clearly see the appeal.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Iona Sharma

    This should be in my did-not-finish pile as I gave up three quarters of the way through but I read 300 pages of this thing so it's going on my list. It's a journey through the chemical elements, which ought to be interesting and in places often is - did you know, for example, that there is a rare earth metal called europium and it's used as the dye in euro notes? Neon was named by its discoverer's 13-year-old son? Antimony was once used as eyeliner and they used to make crockery out of uranium d This should be in my did-not-finish pile as I gave up three quarters of the way through but I read 300 pages of this thing so it's going on my list. It's a journey through the chemical elements, which ought to be interesting and in places often is - did you know, for example, that there is a rare earth metal called europium and it's used as the dye in euro notes? Neon was named by its discoverer's 13-year-old son? Antimony was once used as eyeliner and they used to make crockery out of uranium dioxide? I also like the author's quest to make chemical elements at home and he even has a go at synthesising phosphorous out of urine in his garage, which is amazing. However! the book is supposed to be about, not the chemistry of the elements, but their cultural significance, whatever that is, which is very ambitious of course and then... kind of hubristic? One person can't assess the cultural significance of neon lights, the treasure of the Incas, water fluoridation and the work of Agatha Christie among many, many other things, and it's sort of ridiculous to try. By the time he's asking questions like, what *gender* is titanium, I gave up.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lithezebra

    I should have taken "cultural history" more literally. This was not a science book, or even much of a science history book, and I came away feeling like I hadn't learned anything inspiring.. However, if you're more interested in how people have felt about precious and useful metals, without the details of physical science, it's a well written book. I should have taken "cultural history" more literally. This was not a science book, or even much of a science history book, and I came away feeling like I hadn't learned anything inspiring.. However, if you're more interested in how people have felt about precious and useful metals, without the details of physical science, it's a well written book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Pranav Saxena

    This is one of those books that's hard to put under any specific genre, but something you pick up looking how fun and ingenious the premise is. Who would not want to re-classify elements! Like people maintaining travel maps and collecting fridge magnets to commemorate trips, the idea for the book stems from the author's urge to collect samples of elements (using the periodic table as a map) and as he goes through the journey, aim to "understand" each element looking at its discovery and what rol This is one of those books that's hard to put under any specific genre, but something you pick up looking how fun and ingenious the premise is. Who would not want to re-classify elements! Like people maintaining travel maps and collecting fridge magnets to commemorate trips, the idea for the book stems from the author's urge to collect samples of elements (using the periodic table as a map) and as he goes through the journey, aim to "understand" each element looking at its discovery and what role and position they have acquired in the society. The idea is definitely interesting - Mendeleev's periodic table classifies elements based on their physical and chemical properties. Whilst this may suffice for more technical use, these elements interact and are construed in our common life very differently. And thus, is there any merit in studying elements together that have similar values (E.g. clubbing "value" metals such as gold, silver, platinum etc. together). The brilliance of the book, however, lies in the author's ability to showcase our anthropomorphism with these elements. For instance, iron for strength, Arsenic as an adjective for anything poisonous, platinum for anything rare and precious (think platinum jubilee, platinum membership etc.) and so on. The author talks about how these elements have evolved with the society and our needs (e.g. Aluminium was considered a precious and power metal based on Napolean's use of it, but with time has lowered in perceived value). Delving into these elements also allows the author to explore interesting correlations around the time and geography of these elements being discovered. All in all, the author does a good job of bringing to life these fundamental and ubiquitous, yet often ignored elements. The book does use a free-flowing style of writing which at times leaves the reader with the burden of deciphering the narrative thread, thus making it not-so-pleasant from a readability standpoint. Nonetheless, a recommended read for offering a refreshing perspective.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Vaughan

    In a past review I confessed that I was for the most part scientifically illiterate. I'm not sure how far this book went in curing that but I do know a bit more about the periodic table than I used to. I can name the elements designated as halogens ,fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine as well as a few of the noble gases ,xenon, radon, and krypton. I'm not sure if this really counts as scientific knowledge or just knowledge of scientific terms though. While their chemical properties of the e In a past review I confessed that I was for the most part scientifically illiterate. I'm not sure how far this book went in curing that but I do know a bit more about the periodic table than I used to. I can name the elements designated as halogens ,fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine as well as a few of the noble gases ,xenon, radon, and krypton. I'm not sure if this really counts as scientific knowledge or just knowledge of scientific terms though. While their chemical properties of the elements in the periodic table are important it is the cultural baggage these substances have accumulated that the author is most concerned with. This is particularly true when talking about the things we value and esteem. Gold and silver are not only objects of worth but symbols of it as well. Just ask the guy who gets the bronze medal. However there was a time when aluminum was so highly valued that the guests at Napoleon III's table were given cutlery made for it to eat with while the less favored were given silver or gold. All in all a very enjoyable book my only complaint was that the author's storytelling is hit and miss at best. The books saving grace is that the author's enthusiasm for his material really shines through.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Celtria

    This book sits on my science shelves but it should inhabit a shelf of its own, labelled Biographies of the Inanimate (a section for Borges imaginary Library of Babel?). To quote the author: "My aim in this book has been to show that the elements are all around us, both in the material sense that they are in the objects we treasure and under our kitchen sinks, but also around us more powerfully in a figurative sense, in our art and literature and language, in our history and geography, and that th This book sits on my science shelves but it should inhabit a shelf of its own, labelled Biographies of the Inanimate (a section for Borges imaginary Library of Babel?). To quote the author: "My aim in this book has been to show that the elements are all around us, both in the material sense that they are in the objects we treasure and under our kitchen sinks, but also around us more powerfully in a figurative sense, in our art and literature and language, in our history and geography, and that the character of these parallel lives arises ultimately from each element's universal and unvarying properties." Aldersey-Williams reaches that aim in a well-written, easy-read, book of surprises that takes the reader from the trenches of WWI to the swimming baths, from the teacher's chalk to the dentist's chair, from limelight to Las Vegas and on many other adventures for which you don't need any previous knowledge of chemistry. Though you may find yourself tempted to acquire a poster of the Periodic Table to stick on your kitchen or bedroom wall! A warning: reading Periodic Tales may turn you into an irritation to the other reader on the sofa with your interjections into the silence, "Listen to this..." "Did you know..." "I would never have thought...." :)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    Very interesting. This book definitely tells a different story about the elements than what I, with a chemistry background, usually got. It assigned genders to a lot of the metals and talked about the colors and smells and sounds of the elements and the effect those things had on the way society viewed them before we could define them by their atomic structure. I learned a lot, not just that British people pronounce a lot of the elements weirdly, not just aluminum. Favorite fact: UPPU, a club th Very interesting. This book definitely tells a different story about the elements than what I, with a chemistry background, usually got. It assigned genders to a lot of the metals and talked about the colors and smells and sounds of the elements and the effect those things had on the way society viewed them before we could define them by their atomic structure. I learned a lot, not just that British people pronounce a lot of the elements weirdly, not just aluminum. Favorite fact: UPPU, a club that you could only join if there was enough Plutonium in your system for it to be detectable in your urine. Favorite quote: "Civilization, it is immediately apparent, is simply organized resistance to oxidation...The gas brings life, and in doing so, brings death closer."

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tweedledum

    Periodic tales is one of those books that grabs you by the throat and will not let you go. Full of extra-ordinary stories, co-incidences, twists and turns Hugh Aldersley-Williams meanders through the arcane history of the elements and in so doing encourages the reader to want to find out more and more. I have always been jointly fascinated by chemistry and the extra-ordinary people behind the knowledge we so take for granted and on which our civilisation hangs. Many of the people involved in the Periodic tales is one of those books that grabs you by the throat and will not let you go. Full of extra-ordinary stories, co-incidences, twists and turns Hugh Aldersley-Williams meanders through the arcane history of the elements and in so doing encourages the reader to want to find out more and more. I have always been jointly fascinated by chemistry and the extra-ordinary people behind the knowledge we so take for granted and on which our civilisation hangs. Many of the people involved in the elements recent history are, of course, well known and celebrated for their work, Curie, Davy, Mendeleev are three that instantly spring to mind. But many others are unsung, unrecognised by the world at large and often forgotten even within the scientific community. Who now knows the story of the genius behind the discoveries at Ytterby or is able to name even 2 of the seven elements that were discovered there or even locate Ytterby on a map? Unlike an encyclopaedia or a chemistry textbook Periodic tales reads more like a mystery story and I found myself keen to keep reading and eager to follow Hugh's trail. It is hard to think of a topic or theme that is not touched on somewhere in this book but everything is handled with a deft lightness of touch and great literary skill. The history of the elements is intimately entwined with the history of humanity and in taking us to the trenches and the use of Chlorine as a weapon he keeps our eyes firmly fixed on the patriotic chemist, Haber, who proposed that the gas be released from ground based cylinders allowing wind to carry it over to the enemy lines. Hugh follows the Haber story through telling of the suicide of Haber's wife (also a chemist) in 1915, following the attacks, and of his own visit to Haber's son and daughters who retired to Bath of all places. Hideous as this particular bit of history is Hugh dances his narrative along now showing the comic, now peeping into the ancient craft of sword making, now revealing the unsung hero. Any review of this book cannot begin to do it full justice. All I can say is Read it. You will not be disappointed and you will find that your view of the world has expanded exponentially.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Andres

    If you enjoyed The Disappearing Spoon as much as I did, than this book is a no-brainer must-read. I remember while taking a chemistry class not too long ago that though the nitty gritty details were sometimes daunting, boring, or downright frustrating, it was always the stories about the elements or their discoverers that helped put everything in context, making it a richer learning experience. Seeing as how the history behind the elements wasn't the point of taking the chemistry class I sought o If you enjoyed The Disappearing Spoon as much as I did, than this book is a no-brainer must-read. I remember while taking a chemistry class not too long ago that though the nitty gritty details were sometimes daunting, boring, or downright frustrating, it was always the stories about the elements or their discoverers that helped put everything in context, making it a richer learning experience. Seeing as how the history behind the elements wasn't the point of taking the chemistry class I sought out books that would help fill the gap. Now almost 2 years later there are two books that fit the bill (not to say that this book and this book are lacking anything, but the dictionary-style formats aren't quite as organic in presenting the information as are 'Spoon' and 'Tales'). Both books are similar in style and cover the same elements (there are only a finite amount of them!) but do so in completely different and interesting ways. It might be due to the time between reading both books but I didn't notice any overlap in information or anecdotes. If something was familiar it was more like getting the other side of the story than a repeat of the same details. I recommend 'Tales' (and 'Spoon') to anyone interested in science, science history, or chemistry. I think reading one or both of these books will help demystify the elements and make learning chemistry that much easier.

  18. 5 out of 5

    J.P.

    It must be tough to write a book on science. Make it too simplistic and it may have wider appeal but the people most likely to buy it will think it stinks. Go gung-ho into the subject and in this case chemists will love it while it cures the insomnia of the general public. Ultimately, this book is a bit of both. I thought the background on elements could have been done better. The author leaves out some of the basics to sail off on tangents that aren't nearly as interesting. For instance with zin It must be tough to write a book on science. Make it too simplistic and it may have wider appeal but the people most likely to buy it will think it stinks. Go gung-ho into the subject and in this case chemists will love it while it cures the insomnia of the general public. Ultimately, this book is a bit of both. I thought the background on elements could have been done better. The author leaves out some of the basics to sail off on tangents that aren't nearly as interesting. For instance with zinc, he never mentions the most common usage as plating for steel but goes on for pages trying to figure out why bars in France were originally called zincs. There was also too much time spent on oddball references, namely the use of certain elements in art and literature. That the author is way into his topic is proved by the line "...we should all have a little piece of spent uranium to keep in the garden as a momento of our reliance upon it for our energy." I'd rather opt for a gnome. And with all the colorful elements on the planet, all the tiny illustrations are in black and white. I liked it in certain respects, but not in others.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    This is an interesting tour through the elements of the Periodic Table, very similar to the equally good book, The Disappearing Spoon. This book focuses on the ways that the elements impact our culture and teaches a little history and science along the way. Very enjoyable.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Laurel Hicks

    All the members of the Periodic Table, how they were discovered, their behaviors, and how they get along with each other. Had this book and Theodore Gray’s wonderful apps been available 55 years ago, I might not have gotten a C in chemistry.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Andree Sanborn

    It is through this cultural life rather than through experimental encounter in a laboratory that we really come to know the elements individually, and it is a cause for sadness that most chemistry teaching does so little to acknowledge this rich existence. I am not a certified science teacher and have never wanted to be one. Yet here I am teaching Chemistry this semester: the 2nd worse class I ever took in school (physics being the first). Somehow I had to make chemistry accessible to my high It is through this cultural life rather than through experimental encounter in a laboratory that we really come to know the elements individually, and it is a cause for sadness that most chemistry teaching does so little to acknowledge this rich existence. I am not a certified science teacher and have never wanted to be one. Yet here I am teaching Chemistry this semester: the 2nd worse class I ever took in school (physics being the first). Somehow I had to make chemistry accessible to my high school kids. And accessible to me. We can't do experiments because of lack of money and equipment (and I am learning that because of money and liability problems that fewer and fewer chemistry classes are experimenting). I re-read The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into The Land Of The Chemical Elements and became so fascinated with the elements that I now have a course of six books I want to read about them (including Oliver Sacks's Uncle Tungsten ). This, Periodic Tales, was the first of my six. I loved it. This book combines human culture and history with science: my favorite type of book. In combination with Gray's Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe , I have thoroughly enjoyed myself reading, and collecting and tagging images on the iPad with Google image search (these can't be shared, unfortunately). Just as Aldersey-Williams says in the quotation above, I now am knowing these elements in their many dimensions; individually. If you, also, become obsessed with the elements, this is the place to start. Slowly, I am percolating different projects in my head so that the elements can be known individually by my students. Students with no background knowledge of science at all shouldn't be bored with it. They should know that they are a part of chemistry.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Graham

    A meandering personal scientific historic journey though the elements. I can understand why some folk found this hard going: the numerous diversions off to visit a shop, a mine, a lab, a library, a museum might distract from the central narrative of 'how the elements wee discovered' but actually ACTUALLY this is how science works. Something read or seen might spark the imagination which generates motivation in the midst of fruitless struggle..... Look, if you like to know 'totally useless' facts A meandering personal scientific historic journey though the elements. I can understand why some folk found this hard going: the numerous diversions off to visit a shop, a mine, a lab, a library, a museum might distract from the central narrative of 'how the elements wee discovered' but actually ACTUALLY this is how science works. Something read or seen might spark the imagination which generates motivation in the midst of fruitless struggle..... Look, if you like to know 'totally useless' facts that might just ignite a bored teenager to take an interest in science, so they see that real people with real lives did real work over years to wrestle a substance out from its mineral which now allows their mobile phone to work, then this book is great. The inclusion of where the quotes came from, a huge bibliography and a fantastic index [with the elements in bold :) :) :) ] just adds value to this tome. The only disappointment was that this book was not produced by Dorling Kindersley. It would have doubled the length to nearly 900 pages but huge photographs in colour would have just been the icing on the panna cotta.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alyson

    A really interesting and entertaining way to learn more about the elements, the periodic table, and the history surrounding them. As a non-chemist, I found the book really enjoyable and very informative. I learned more about the atomic structure of the elements, as well as their cultural influence. I did find that it was a little hard to keep up my pace during the second half. This could be due to the latter half of the book dealing with the slightly less interesting/influential of the elements, A really interesting and entertaining way to learn more about the elements, the periodic table, and the history surrounding them. As a non-chemist, I found the book really enjoyable and very informative. I learned more about the atomic structure of the elements, as well as their cultural influence. I did find that it was a little hard to keep up my pace during the second half. This could be due to the latter half of the book dealing with the slightly less interesting/influential of the elements, my own stamina running down after 200 pages, or the writer's own interest being less pronounced for those particular elements (he seemed kind of tired and ready to be done by the time we got to the rare earth elements. No matter, it was a great book and one that I recommend to people who like short snippets of history and cultural analysis. If you want more in depth analysis of the history of science/chemistry this is not the right book, but could still be used as a starting point for further studies.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Alana

    It took me a long while to read this, because while the individual stories were interesting, the book as a whole just wasn't engaging enough to keep me coming back to it. I finally finished it off by reading about one or two elements every day, enough that the facts and dates didn't start swimming together, and I think that worked better. The anecdotes about the history of each element were interesting, although if you asked me to summarize any of them for you I probably couldn't. I don't think It took me a long while to read this, because while the individual stories were interesting, the book as a whole just wasn't engaging enough to keep me coming back to it. I finally finished it off by reading about one or two elements every day, enough that the facts and dates didn't start swimming together, and I think that worked better. The anecdotes about the history of each element were interesting, although if you asked me to summarize any of them for you I probably couldn't. I don't think I retained very much (maybe just that there's a mine in Sweden that I should check out) but who knows. Definitely have to be at least a LITTLE into science and/or history to like this one.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Anne-Marie Hodge

    Tons of interesting facts and trivia, and a unique approach to the cultural history of chemical elements. The reason I only gave it three stars is that the narrative sometimes gets a little too boggy for my taste and a bit repetitive (how many times do we need to be reminded that elements were distilled from ores in order to be discovered, much less have the process painted for us in detail?). I think it's worth the read, however, because it does contain a lot of history and insights into just h Tons of interesting facts and trivia, and a unique approach to the cultural history of chemical elements. The reason I only gave it three stars is that the narrative sometimes gets a little too boggy for my taste and a bit repetitive (how many times do we need to be reminded that elements were distilled from ores in order to be discovered, much less have the process painted for us in detail?). I think it's worth the read, however, because it does contain a lot of history and insights into just how lab chemistry and physics have developed so many things that we take for granted in daily life.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Naila

    This book reveals so many details about the discovery of elements as well as cases in which such elements were used in crimes,etc. The book also revealed to me how several of the famous scientists/discoverers were acquainted with one another and that they would seek each other's opinions. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in chemistry. This book reveals so many details about the discovery of elements as well as cases in which such elements were used in crimes,etc. The book also revealed to me how several of the famous scientists/discoverers were acquainted with one another and that they would seek each other's opinions. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in chemistry.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Arty

    Full of the sort of information that turns up on QI, this book showed up huge holes in my knowledge... and then filled them with interesting chemicals, some of which I'd never heard of before. Full of the sort of information that turns up on QI, this book showed up huge holes in my knowledge... and then filled them with interesting chemicals, some of which I'd never heard of before.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Mocella

    (Reviewer's disclosure: I am a chemist) - This book is an off angle take on the chemical elements from a historical perspective (how they were discovered), but also deeply on a cultural and meaningful, even poetic, perspective. The author has really done his homework on this, and I learned and was enlightened to quite a bit. I can't say that I was enthralled, finding myself skipping some pages and trying to get to interesting chemical-history parts, but the book was interesting enough to read to (Reviewer's disclosure: I am a chemist) - This book is an off angle take on the chemical elements from a historical perspective (how they were discovered), but also deeply on a cultural and meaningful, even poetic, perspective. The author has really done his homework on this, and I learned and was enlightened to quite a bit. I can't say that I was enthralled, finding myself skipping some pages and trying to get to interesting chemical-history parts, but the book was interesting enough to read to the end. It's hard not to compare this book to The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (which I personally enjoyed very much), but I think that they are very different takes on chemical elements, the stories of how we discovered them, but also what they mean as a society. The author will take the cultural, even spiritual, significance of elements when they were found, or how they were used, and try to paint a more poetic state of them than just hard science (there is very little hard science here). This line from the book sums up how the author treats his subject: "This monochrome was is deceptive, not truth-telling; it soaks everything in a nicotinic glare such that is is no longer possible to perceive color accurately." Great line! He is talking about the yellow-orange wash of sodium vapor lamps, as opposed to the light given out by gas lamps, and how that affected what people saw (color and shadow) but also what the glow *meant* for poets and writers and people when they existed among these differently-lit cities. Lots of stories on discovery of elements, lots of stories on the history and use of elements along with what they meant in certain cultures, and quite a few "pathos" discussions of them as well.

  29. 5 out of 5

    David Meiklejohn

    Rating this book doesn't seem possible. On one side, the author uses humor, and wonderful writing to bring to life not just the elements on the periodic table, but the construction of the periodic table, and the labor needed to prove each element as it was found. On the other is a meandering text that verges on imperialist, at times sexist (why do metals need a sex assigned to them?) and certainly euro-centric that made me a bit uncomfortable. I think the best way to describe this book would be if Rating this book doesn't seem possible. On one side, the author uses humor, and wonderful writing to bring to life not just the elements on the periodic table, but the construction of the periodic table, and the labor needed to prove each element as it was found. On the other is a meandering text that verges on imperialist, at times sexist (why do metals need a sex assigned to them?) and certainly euro-centric that made me a bit uncomfortable. I think the best way to describe this book would be if Garrison Keillor and Ira Flatow ghost wrote a radio series for the BBC. It's in depth, indulgent, has beautiful turns of phrase, wondrous descriptions, then gets lost in itself from time to time, makes you learn, scream and frankly leaves you not sure how to feel. Would I recommend this book? Possibly, to certain people. A true love of science going in is needed. Being able to not discard the book as he debates if titanium is male or female for multiple pages could be helpful too. Other than that, the stories that come up are entertaining in equal parts inspiring and occasionally horrifying.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anna Kaling

    Periodic Tales was interesting. It wasn't dry - possibly veered a little too far the other way, with the author reaching to relate the elements to art and literature, leading to some rather tortured analogies - but it wasn't dumbed down, either. I liked that it talked about the scientific properties of the elements but concentrated more on the context of their discovery and use, which I knew far less about. I listened to the audiobook and I'll have to listen again because I did find my attention Periodic Tales was interesting. It wasn't dry - possibly veered a little too far the other way, with the author reaching to relate the elements to art and literature, leading to some rather tortured analogies - but it wasn't dumbed down, either. I liked that it talked about the scientific properties of the elements but concentrated more on the context of their discovery and use, which I knew far less about. I listened to the audiobook and I'll have to listen again because I did find my attention wandering fairly frequently, but not because the book was boring. I think it was partly because the narrator had a really soothing voice and partly because the structure of the book was quite fuzzy and didn't make it too easy to follow. Instead of just going through the elements one by one he grouped them into 'cultural significance' groups like Beauty and Power. I understand his reasoning in the introduction, that other books have done what he did in a more usual structure, but it still seems obvious to me that in a book called Periodic Tales you would use the intrinsically elegant ordering of the periodic table to tell your story.

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