Thursday, December 8, 2011
Meaning I had to read Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, From Arsenic to Zinc almost as soon as it appeared on bookshelves.
It was a bit of a follow-up to my reading of Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon but less humorous. This is a very well-researched look into how the discovery of the elements impacted the lives of everyday people:
Hunger for gold as a valuable commodity (Pliny disapproves).
The yellow lamplight of dystopian fiction derives from sodium.
Mercury was praised as a cure-all then turned into a poison.
The development of the Haber-Bosch process by Fritz Haber - the process of nitrogen fixation to produce fertilizer - was a side project in his development of chlorine and other gases which changed the face of warfare in World War I (and led to Wilfrid Owen's poem The Old Lie).
It's best to treat this book as a series of essays linked into "chapters" by similar themes rather than a cohesive book of history.
Drawback - what pictures included are in the book are small and black-and-white. Bo