About a quarter of the way through Peter Wothers’ new book, Antimony, Gold, And Jupiter’s Wolf: How The Elements Were Named, I realized how much of an understatement that subtitle is. Wothers has done much more than supply origin stories for the elements’ names — he’s told the tale of societies slowly learning how to communicate with one another in a rapidly changing world.
One might expect a book about the elements’ names to be written as a series of entries, the same way Peter van der Krogt’s superb Elementymology website is arranged as 120 discrete pages. The book’s first chapter might even reinforce that notion. It’s divided into seven subsections, each one relating the history of one of the seven pure metals known since antiquity. Although linked thematically, each of these can be read more or less independently.
But soon afterward, the book takes on a more narrative style, and for good reason. Each element’s science and stories start to tangle with those of its chemical siblings. Conventions set with hydrogen had implications in the naming of oxygen and nitrogen, which in turn made waves for potassium and sodium, and so on.
The book is not just a collection of interesting anecdotes, however, and a bigger picture takes shape in the background. The real-life characters at the center of this linguistic tempest were learning how to communicate, collaborate, and form a consensus, despite the borders and languages that separated them. Not only was that kind of work unprecedented, but as the world began to shrink in the early modern period, it was increasingly necessary.
The early chemists weren’t just discovering what caused various reactants to bubble and fizz. They were deciding what it would mean to be a scientist. How would disputes be resolved? Should discoveries be hoarded as secrets or shared freely? And how could women and men from across the globe speak one common language?
Wothers is already a widely respected textbook author and television presenter, but Antimony, Gold, And Jupiter’s Wolf is his first work in the realm of popular science. His textbook origins are clear: The book is exceptionally researched, pulling from a wide variety of primary sources and offering great detail.
Occasionally, he might offer a little too much detail — some readers might be turned off by page-long quotations from 18th-century formal academic discourse. That same quality, however, is what makes this book an invaluable resource for the devoted chemistry student. If you’re reading this blog, then that very likely includes you.
Personally, as the one who researches and writes this podcast, this book has earned a spot on my short list of essential reading, and I’m eager to see which subject Wothers tackles next.
Antimony, Gold, And Jupiter’s Wolf will be available for purchase in the UK beginning November 28, 2019, and in the US on February 1, 2020.