Putting the periodic table in a most civilizing context

By Jesse Singal
April 11, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

For many people, mere mention of the periodic table of elements is instantly soporific. The grid conjures up memories of endless chemistry classes, of incomprehensible symbols and numbers — stuff better left to those select few who actually get excited about the elements.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams, a versatile British writer with an academic background in the natural sciences, is one of those people. He is enthralled by the elements and wants you to be, too. And in “Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc,’’ his enthusiasm becomes rather contagious.

Early in the book, Aldersey-Williams writes that he realized at a young age that “elements told cultural stories. Gold meant something. Silver meant something else, lead something else again.’’ Digging into the stories of the elements can tell us quite a bit about ourselves, he figures.

Because Aldersey-Williams’s ultimate subject is human civilization rather than simply the elements, he gives himself room to expound on just about everything, treating the components of the table as though they were “sorted by an anthropologist.’’ So his book is organized (loosely) into five sections: power (elements hoarded as riches or used to exert control); fire (elements that can best be understood by what happens when they are burned); craft (elements used to create and the cultural meaning we ascribe to them); beauty (elements used to “colour our world’’); and earth (elements that have marked the place where they were discovered in a notable way). It’s an ambitious project. The book “contains as much history, biography, and mythology as chemistry, and generous helpings of economics, geography, geology, astronomy and religion besides.’’

He’s not kidding. “Periodic Tales’’ is swollen with names, places, and long-forgotten (or simply unknown to most of us) figures, with zigzagging detours into almost every subject imaginable. It is almost more of a question of what the book does not touch upon than what it does.

To name just a few subjects, Aldersey-Williams peers into the life of Dmitri Mendeleev, whose periodic table stands as one of the more astounding discoveries in scientific history, as it not only organized the elements then known, but predicted the characteristics of many that had yet to be discovered. He offers up horrific images of waves of chlorine, one of the first chemical weapons, rolling over a World War I battlefield, killing or critically injuring anyone caught in its awful green haze. And he discusses the cultural impact of chromium (an ingredient of chrome) in the United States last century, rich fodder for fiction writers provided by the advent of sodium lighting — which cast a sickly pale-yellow light over both urban areas and authors’ imaginations.

Aldersey-Williams’s playful, hands-on approach to scientific exploration shines through the book and adds color to it. Amid other experiments, he tries distilling phosphorous from his own urine. He takes a pilgrimage to Ytterby, a Swedish mine (now more of a quarry) that was the source of the discovery of seven different elements. He interviews a British pyrotechnics old-timer who bemoans the overly choreographed and controlled nature of modern fireworks. Aldersey-Williams doesn’t just write; he participates.

There is not much to dislike in “Periodic Tales,’’ Sure, some parts are more interesting than others — I cared less for Aldersey-Williams’s meticulously detailed descriptions of amateur experiments he conducted than for his sweeping tales of how access to this or that metal made and unmade empires — but the meandering nature of the book means that the reader is never more than a few pages away from a new element or a new story.

“Periodic Tales’’ is much more exploration than straightforward narrative or argument. As a result, and because of its density of information, it is not an easy book to breeze through. Which is fine, because each section is largely independent of the others — 10 pages can be read here, another 20 there. Like a rich vein of ore, Aldersey-Williams’s impressive look at the periodic table can be chipped away at quite enjoyably and profitably.

Jesse Singal, who writes for the Globe’s opinion pages, can be reached at

PERIODIC TALES: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc By Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Ecco, 428 pp., illustrated, $29.99