Skip to main content

30-Second Elements – Ed. Eric Scerri ****

Remarkably soon after reviewing Eric Scerri’s A Tale of Seven Elements he’s back with 30-Second Elements. I need to admit up front that I have made a small contribution to thisbook – but it’s no more than 10% and only in writing a few of the articles, nothing to do with the overall volume. The way the book works is as a series of 50 articles, each on an element and each a two-page spread, with pithy text on the left and an illustration on the right. It is given a bit more weight with a longer introduction and a profile of a key figure in each of seven main sections.
If I am honest, I have been scathing about these ’30-Second’ books in the past, because I have found it hard to understand why anyone would buy one. They generally aren’t readable through like a real book, but aren’t detailed enough to be a reference. However, they have sold plenty of copies, and this particular one is something of an exception to my uncertainty because the subject of the elements lends itself to this ‘bitty’ approach – they are, after all, bitty things.
The text is broken into a series of parts – the main text, long enough to be readable, the ‘3 second state’ which gives some basic facts like the chemical symbol, the ‘3 minute reaction’ (which strangely is shorter than the main ’30 second’ piece), giving a little side bar of tangential information and the dates of a few key figures. Although I did write a few of the entries, I hadn’t read most of them and found myself surprisingly drawn into the elegant little factoids and stories, learning, for instance, that we store about 3 years’ worth of magnesium in our bodies, and that fluorine finds its way into the wet-weather clothing Gore-Tex via Teflon. Not to mention a handy discussion of the difference between silicon and silicone – useful if you want the right materials in the right place.
So while I still prefer a popular science book that is an end-to-end read, I have to admit this example of the 30 second series, with the ‘rough hewn cardboard’ feeling cover that is part of the series look and feel, has rather won me over. But then, if anyone knows his periodic table, it’s Eric Scerri.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…