Sunday, 21 July 2013

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

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