Skip to main content

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.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…