Hugh Aldersey-Williams studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. He is the author of several books exploring science, design and architecture, and has curated exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Wellcome Collection. His latest book is Periodic Tales.
Science is ultimately the only way of knowing our world. It is also a major part of culture – not something on one side from it or opposed to it as some scientists seem to think. Anything I write about science will always be guided by that.
Why this book?
I feel we have lost touch – often literally – with the elements. I wanted to give readers a real sense of look and feel of the elements, their colours, their weight, their smells, their sounds. It is through these qualities that most of us come to know the elements far better than we think – not by crossing the threshold of a chemistry lab. In other words, we know the elements culturally, through the way they’ve been wrested from the ground, worked and traded.
I think chemistry as it is taught can sometimes be its own worst enemy, and since giving readings of Periodic Tales I’ve found people coming up to me complaining that their son or daughter is having ‘to do the periodic table’ at school. Teaching this artificial construct by rote, as if to equip a child for some trivia quiz, is a disaster.
To use some horrible marketing-speak, I think chemistry’s brand needs refreshing. It seems that chemistry is losing popularity, but in fact what is happening is that its thunder is being stolen by ‘sexier’ fields – environmental sciences, nanotechnology, forensics, molecular biology etc. It doesn’t really matter though. The elements will always be there and we will always depend on them.
Too soon to tell. Probably something that gives me an excuse to learn more about some area of science I know even less about than chemistry.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
My eleven-year-old son’s piano-playing. Where has it comes from?