Periodic Tales, cover

Periodic Tales is a rare book as it embraces science, culture, history in one volume and it is all brought together seamlessly by the art of good writing. Hugh Aldersey-Williams has created a book that is both a good and fascinating read as well as a useful reference.

Enjoyable Read and Valuable Reference

Rather than work through the elements by atomic number Periodic Tales is organised into five parts where they are related as much by cultural characteristics as by science. Hugh Aldersey-Williams provides a consistent narrative that flows smoothly through the elements covered in each part. It is an exploration of a gentle obsession, a shared personal interest in the stories behind the elements. The stories are well-linked to provide a narrative but are diverse and so provide an entertaining read.


Periodic Tales explores the societal and actual power that comes from wealth through gold, the power that originated with iron or carbon and drove the industrial revolution to modern sources of nuclear energy. Along the way it picks up the story of Mendeleev’s creation of the periodic table and the predictive power it provided to scientists.


In the section labelled Fire, Hugh Aldersey- Wiliams starts with sulphur and the voyage of circumnavigation by HMS Sulphur. Although something of a diversion as it is only really connected by the name it provides intertesting reading. In Fire, Periodic Tales chronicles the author’s attempts to replicate the original discovery of iodine and phosphorous with mixed success. Fire covers the use of elements, such as phosphorous, for military opurposes and explores the soimetimes inappropriate use of elements for medical and other purposes, often with dangerous consequences.


Metals have been a focus for art and craft from the earliest days of mankind. In Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams shows how each has have ebbed and flowed in importance. Perhaps the most noteworthy is aluminium (or aluminum) which when first refined was a precious metal and used as such by Napoleon. Originally it was expensive not due to its rarity but because it was expensive to extract. As techniques improved it became increasingly ubiquitous, banalization as Aldersey-Williams calls it.


Colour is all around us in the natural world but it was a long time before man was able to replicate that beauty. From early pigments and through the cobalt blue of medieval cathedral glass Periodic Tales provides a history of colour and pigments as harnessed by man and their often poisonous side-effects.


Finally Earth explains how Sweden was a major c`ntre for chemistry and the discovery of new elements mostly with low levels of cultural impact. This arose because of Sweden having a major mining interests that provided economic support for chemistry and the raw materials for analysis. In particular they identified the 2rare earths which are actually middleweight metals that resisted extraction. A small mine in a small Swedish town, Ytterby, had a disproportionate impact as a the first source of many of these rare earths.

A Well Shared Enthusiasm

Hugh Aldersey-Williams writes with an obvious lifetime enthusiasm for his subject. He brings the elements alive and effectively creates a personality for the building blocks o0f chemistry. This is a book that can be read from cover to cover but it is also an ideal book to dip into for pleasure or to answer questions as it has an extensive index. Indeed, Periodic Tales is very much a book that the reader will use to answer a question and will be drawn into reading more than intended; a small question could easily lead to an hour lost in pleasurable browsing.

Aldersey-Williams brings artistry with words to what could easily be a rather mechanical exposition on the characteristics and cultural impact of the chemical elements. Periodic Tales brings history, culture and science together through art, through language. This book is for anyone with an interest in the world around them, not just those with an interest in science.

Periodic Tales, the Curious Lives of the Elements (2011, ISBN:978-0-670-91811-9) by Hugh Aldersey-Williams is published in hard back by Penguin Viking at £18.99.

The Author: Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer on science, design and architecture and originally studied natural science at Cambridge University.

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