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The Elements In Style

Two books take very different approaches to explain the periodic table, with satisfaction to be had from each

by Sam Lemonick
February 11, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 6

Credit: Eric R. Scerri, Oxford University Press
The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric R. Scerri, Oxford University Press, 2011, 147 pages, $11.95 softcover (ISBN: 978-0-19-958249-5)
Cover of The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric R. Scerri
Credit: Eric R. Scerri, Oxford University Press
The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric R. Scerri, Oxford University Press, 2011, 147 pages, $11.95 softcover (ISBN: 978-0-19-958249-5)

The periodic table has to be one of the most recognizable symbols of science, rivaled by the double helix and few others. Almost everyone should recognize its shape, however dimly, from a high school science class.

But if you’re feeling a bit rusty on the finer points of the periodic table and the elements, you might take a look at two recent books: “The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction” and “Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified.” The first, by chemist Eric R. Scerri, tends toward a more academic treatment of the subject, while the second book is a more whimsical exploration by artist Bunpei Yorifuji.

The periodic table provides rich ground to till for many authors, including recent books like Sam Kean’s excellent “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.” The periodic table is so fundamental and so diverse that it will likely be the basis for many books to come. While Kean used the periodic table as a jumping-off point for storytelling, in Scerri’s and Yorifuji’s books the periodic table is the story. The authors come at the periodic table from opposite directions and in doing so have managed to write two very different books.

“Wonderful Life with the Elements” is aimed at a broad, nonscientific audience, although even the most serious chemist will enjoy seeing such illustrations as nitrogen personified floating above a stick of TNT, sporting a beard and mohawk. Yorifuji is the author of several books in Japanese and an artist famous for his posters in Tokyo subways that depict bad manners. “Wonderful Life” is translated into English from the original Japanese.

Yorifuji’s drawings present the elements as human figures. Each group has its own hairstyle—the transition metals wear their hair parted on the side, boring and businesslike; the “too cool” noble gases have afros; and he gives a flirty cut to the alkali metals, quick to “lose their luster.” Yorifuji’s clever, playful personality is on display throughout. The elements wear different clothes depending on their use—daily, scientific, industrial, and more. If an element was discovered recently, it has a pacifier. Iron, on the other hand, has a beard down to his chest.

Credit: Bunpei Yorifuji, No Starch Press Inc.
A Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified, by Bunpei Yorifuji, No Starch Press Inc., 2012, 206 pages, $17.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59327-423-8)
Cover of A Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personalized, by Bunpei Yorifuji.
Credit: Bunpei Yorifuji, No Starch Press Inc.
A Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified, by Bunpei Yorifuji, No Starch Press Inc., 2012, 206 pages, $17.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59327-423-8)

Most elements get a full-page treatment, although certain elements like carbon and potassium get a two-page spread while hassium and others get only a quarter page. Some of these choices are surprising. Oxygen, for instance, only gets a single page despite its obvious importance. The pages also present the data you’d expect from a periodic table: the element’s name, atomic symbol, number, molar mass, density, melting and boiling points, and year of discovery.

Although Yorifuji presents the elements in linear fashion, his cartoons still manage to convey the familiar rhythms of the periodic table. The repetition of hairstyles is the most obvious example, but the observant reader will notice, for instance, that nitrogen and phosphorus—both in group 15—are used as plant fertilizers, and that they both react violently in some circumstances. While it’s easier to see the periodic groups in table form, Yorifuji’s book can help readers make a more concrete connection with the table’s trends.

Cartoons and a short paragraph describe the uses, dangers, and properties of the elements. For example, Yorifuji shows us three oxygens holding hands to make ozone and protect Earth from harmful radiation, while in chlorine’s pane, one version of the element brandishes a scrub brush as a pool cleaner while another holds a Grim Reaper-style sickle to represent deadly chlorine gas.

Although the book’s format doesn’t lend itself to detailed explanations, the author’s cartoons seem to point the reader toward deeper research. For example, Yorifuji shows “the super-useful smart metal” titanium flipping the pages of a dictionary. That drawing had me scratching my head, but in a few minutes I found myself searching online where I learned that titanium dioxide is used to whiten paper.

The book’s portrayals of the elements are simplistic, to be sure. But Yorifuji’s treatment is playful and endearing in a way that conveys a real appreciation for the elements that will resonate with many chemists. His book will also please your kids, your parents, and perhaps your colleagues.

Yorifuji writes in his endnotes that he knew very little about the elements until he began research for his book. The chemists he met with explained to him the importance of the elements as minerals in our diet and the scarcity of many of the elements we rely on for modern electronics, for example. He writes in the book’s last chapter that he hopes readers will realize how important the elements are and learn to be more aware of how they are used for humankind. For many, the book will fulfill that eye-opening purpose.

Yorifuji does an admirable job of presenting the science he covers accurately. One or two points bothered me—writing that electrons orbit an atom’s nucleus, for instance. Am I quibbling? Perhaps. It may even be a fault of translation. But any chemist is bound to be bothered, at least a little bit, about such inaccurate statements.

“Wonderful Life” strikes a very nice balance between science and art, instruction and entertainment. Yorifuji explains, albeit briefly, how the patterns of the periodic table emerged and how our bodies are made up of and use different elements. He succeeds in making the elements accessible, tangible, and relevant to nonscientists.

Credit: No Starch Press
Yorifuji’s periodic table of personified elements shows the role each plays in our lives.
Yorifuji's periodic table of personified elements shows the role each plays in our lives.
Credit: No Starch Press
Yorifuji’s periodic table of personified elements shows the role each plays in our lives.

Scerri’s approach to the periodic table of the elements, on the other hand, is a chronological presentation. He begins with the ancient Greeks’ attempts to break down all matter into constituent parts and ends after the discovery of ununoctium, currently the last element on the periodic table. As he progresses through the table’s history he introduces chemistry concepts like atomic weight and electronic orbitals as they were discovered. In fewer than 150 pages, the book is remarkably comprehensive. It must be noted, however, that Scerri has adapted some of his material from an earlier book he wrote about the periodic table that was published in 2006.

The author combines anecdotes with basic information. The element thallium, which has a bright green line in its spectrum, takes its name from the Greek word for “green twig.” Drawings and diagrams throughout the book—some made by Scerri and others reproductions of originals drawn by such legends of modern science as Irving Langmuir and Niels Bohr—help the reader keep track of the periodic table’s evolution visually, with rows and elements being added and their arrangements adjusted.

Scerri’s writing is generally clear, though not always poetic. Still, the book takes on complicated topics such as the role of quantum mechanics in atomic configurations without becoming dry. Scerri assumes a certain degree of knowledge on the part of the reader and thus doesn’t always provide full explanations of the topics he covers. In that regard, the book may not be suited for chemistry novices.

But Scerri’s book does serve well as a detailed introduction and a springboard into more complex subtopics concerning the periodic table. He provides an excellent overview and guide to some of the key topics in chemistry today.

At times, Scerri does seem to stray from his mission of briefly introducing the periodic table. It should be noted that he is a philosopher of science, not a research chemist, so his book is also an introduction to philosophical questions about chemistry and the periodic table. That may surprise some readers.

The philosophical questions Scerri raises are certainly worth pondering: Are there better ways to organize or arrange the periodic table? Are the elements concrete entities or abstractions? Unfortunately, these explorations, at times, seem a little bit tacked on—an opportunity for Scerri to promote his own ideas. Worse, the author hasn’t given himself room to develop his philosophical arguments to the satisfaction of readers who are interested in these issues.

On balance, though, Scerri’s book lives up to its promise: a short introduction of the periodic table. For past or future students of chemistry, “The Periodic Table” explains the basics of this fundamental tool of science clearly and accurately.

Together these two books fill a narrow but critical gap on bookshelves: simple, brief introductions to the periodic table of the elements that might especially benefit the educated lay reader. Their different approaches represent two ways of understanding the periodic table, which I think is related to one of the philosophical questions Scerri raises. In essence, the question is, Which came first: the elements or the periodic table? Scerri begins with the table and lets the elements fall into place along the way. Yorifuji, on the other hand, builds his book around the elements—their properties, quirks, and stories.

There may not be a right answer, but the two authors’ approaches make for two very different reading experiences. I think the friendly, casual tone of “Wonderful Life” would delight readers of all ages. “The Periodic Table,” by contrast, seems better suited for readers excited to delve deeper into chemistry, not to mention its history and philosophy. Scerri’s book presents difficult concepts with clear explanations and plain language, but I wonder whether readers without a committed interest will be drawn in. That is not intended as a slight; those looking to expand or refresh their knowledge will be rewarded. But if you want to surprise someone with how much fun the periodic table can be, you might be better off with Yorifuji’s take.

Sam Lemonick is a freelance science writer in Washington, D.C.


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