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

Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Ecco, $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-06-182472-2
British author Aldersey-Williams, whose range includes architecture, design, and science, delves into the elemental—the perfect subject matter for his lighthearted erudition. Aldersey-Williams presents a veritable blizzard of facts, anecdotes, and cultural allusions in this informative look at the world's building blocks. Beginning with gold, he ponders the intriguing question of the source of its mysterious value, quoting the ancient philosopher Pliny the Elder who wisely said, "the first person who put gold on his fingers committed the worse crime against human life." When pursuing chlorine, Aldersey-Williams invokes Wilfred Owen's WWI poem "The old Lie," comparing it to John Singer Sargent's painting, Gassed, from the same period. Seemingly unremarkable lead is unmasked as a source of two of the most formative changes in western culture: the foundation for the type in Guttenberg's printing press and ammunition. Whether discussing arsenic's poisonous past or emerald's color, which "we are biologically programmed to appreciate," Aldersey-Williams puts truth behind the notion "each allocation [element] is a little bit of our civilization." His virtuoso tour of the periodic table reflects its full complement of the human condition. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 05/30/2011
Release date: 04/01/2011
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