Subtitled “The Curious Lives of the Elements”

A curate’s egg, this one – and how have I written 108 previous blog entries without using that dead image before now? (I have a horrible feeling that a blog entry on the origins of the phrase – a Punch cartoon, of course – might make a more interesting article than a review of Aldersey-Williams’s long and thorough book.)

I am not sure where the starting point was for this book. Was it inspired by a genuine interest in the elements, and an urge to chronicle their discovery and role in society? This is what the author claims, but the less generous reviewer in me suspects the real inspiration was those “popular science” books that proliferate, especially around Christmas – “Do Penguins Water-ski?” and “Can Elephants Sneeze?” – you know the type, scientific investigation dressed as popular entertainment, all short chapters, illustrations, and amusing anecdotes.

We see some of that here, but this is at heart an intensely serious book. Not only is the author interested in the origins of the discovery of the elements, which to be fair are not new stories, but also the sociological place of the metals, gases, etc in our society and culture. He draws from a wide range of sources, sometimes extremely so – for example the exploration of various references to sodium street lamps in popular culture goes on for far too long, where the point is slim, unoriginal, and probably deserves only a few lines.

As well as being self-indulgent – the author travels internationally and extensively in his investigations, and follows threads and ideas without much if any justification – my main reservation about this novel is the apparent absence of an editor. A decent editor would have cut the length by at least a third, and imposed some sort of structure on the book – any would have been better than what we have, with seemed to be a random wander through the periodic table, flitting mid paragraph from one element to another without any clue as to where he was going. I found this deeply frustrating, reducing the book to a collection of moderately interesting anecdotes. I know more than I did when I started about the elements, their characteristics, discovery, place in history, etc, but I am convinced a far shorter book with some meaningful pictures and charts would have done the job in far quicker time.