A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc, is a slightly misleading title—Aldersey-Williams actually focuses on a few dozen elements in the periodic table, from the history of their discovery and real-world uses, to their social history and popularity over time. Periodic Tales reminds you how often we take advantage of everyday objects and technology without knowing any of the background. These stories offer the context of history and mythology, with particularly interesting anecdotes about how specific elements influence art, literature, and language.
Some of my favorite tidbits include –
- Platinum gained drastic popularity when the high society needed a “new gold”. Now we have platinum blondes, platinum albums, and platinum credit cards.
- The common street lamp, often complained about by artists and astronomers alike, is made possible with sodium, a metal so light it could float on water, if it wasn’t for fact that it explodes upon contact with it.
- Cadium inspired entire art movements (compare the vitality of color between Rembrandt and Van Gogh)
- Arsenic became so widespread as a poison it was also known as “inheritance powder”
One of my biggest beefs with nonfiction is a tendency for authors to dumb down their material, belaboring a point proposed in the introduction in each subsequent chapter. Periodic Tales manages the other extreme. Aldersey-Williams uses so many different types of anecdotes and examples that have little or no common theme that the storytelling appears meandering and flighty. These examples are uneven in quality, so if you don’t find one particularly interesting, the topic will change soon. Each element in question fits into one of the following categories—power, fire, craft, beauty, and earth—which themselves impart a vague structure.
Periodic Tales is wonderfully interesting if you discount a want of any narrative cohesion. Recommended for readers who are good at recalling “useless facts”, because this is a treasure trove of tidbits to impress your mates down at the pub. Otherwise, be prepared to take notes, teach a friend the stories you want to remember, and read sporadically.