Skip to main content

Periodic Tales – Hugh Aldersey-Williams ****

Nothing gives an author a sinking feeling more than noticing that someone else has brought out a book on the same subject at more or less the same time – yet it happens all too frequently. It’s not some evil conspiracy (usually), but it is more a matter of the author searching for an idea that hasn’t been covered too much already and that seems to be timely, and producing a book that has immediate competitor. From the reviewer’s point of view, it’s quite different, of course. It’s rather handy to have something to use for direct comparison.
This rather lengthy introduction is to point out that we’ve only just reviewed a book on the chemical elements when along comes another, just like those famed London buses. Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon was a big hit here, so it’s fascinating to be able to put Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales alongside it. Periodic Tales is a chunky book that has a classy look and feel. Like Kean, Aldersey-Williams doesn’t go for the obvious and potentially tedious route of organizing the elements by the structure of the periodic table. Instead, each chapter dives around the table using various linking strategies. So we go from gold to platinum, palladium to iron and so on, in a first section loosely connected on the theme of ‘power’.
Straight away Aldersey-Williams demonstrates what he does best, taking us off on a little side story with gold, describing the solid gold lifesize statue of Kate Moss, Siren. The author muses that the statue must be hollow, as the artist wanted it to weigh the same as the model, around 50 kilograms, which is nowhere enough for a solid figure this size. Then he whips us off the the early days of gold, the conquistadores, the American gold rush and more. It can be a little exhausting – but you certainly get your money’s worth in this delightful trip.
I think Aldersley-Williams really triumphs when he has a go himself. His description of his attempt to get hold of homeopathic plutonium (sic) is hilarious, and his recreation of a medieval method of obtaining phosphorus from his own urine has a distinct and powerful alchemical quality. This is excellent stuff.
The only real problem with this book is it goes on too long. Of course he wants to get everything in (some admittedly in a rather cursory fashion), but in the end the reader starts to get element fatigue. I felt this with Kean’s book as well, but not as much. In the end, I found Kean’s writing style more approachable (though there is nothing wrong with Aldersley-Williams’ style) and The Disappearing Spoon, by giving us less, managed to give more in the form of a more readable book. It’s interesting that the BBC Radio 4 condensation of the book used a fusty, pernickety and slightly wry voice to read Periodic Tales. I think this tells you something about the way it reads.
Occasionally the author also a tendency to imbue situations (and elements) with a false significance. For example, we are told that when he worked with plutonium at Harwell as a summer job, ‘The aura of power surrounding the element was made apparent when, as a condition of employment, I had to sign the Official Secrets Act.’ I really don’t think this had anything to do with an ‘aura of power’ surrounding plutonium. I had to sign the Official Secret Act when I did some work at the Met Office – it just reflects the connection with the Ministry of Defence.
This is a very good book, and many people will get a lot of enjoyment from it. It goes into more of the art and cultural implications of the elements than does The Disappearing Spoon, which will appeal to readers who are less comfortable with science. Reflecting the authors’ nationalities, this is a much more English book than Kean’s, and that will make it appeal to many readers above the competition. But I’m afraid, for me, it does come a very honourable second.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…