Carbon: One Atom’s Odyssey

Primo Levi’s book The Periodic Table has come up on this program before. Levi’s autobiography with a distinctly chemical perspective has influenced generations of students, scientists, and writers. What might not be immediately evident, if you haven’t read it, is that Levi didn’t look at every element on the periodic table. He selected 21 elements, each related to a different short story. Argon, lead, arsenic, vanadium, and others are the stars of each, with carbon taking the spotlight for the final chapter.

Illustrator John Barnett has zoomed in even further, focusing only on this last element in his new book, Carbon: One Atom’s Odyssey. Taking inspiration from that last chapter of Levi’s book, Barnett follows one atom of element 6 across millions of years. While Levi did so in words, Barnett makes this trek a visual one, illustrating each step of the way, appropriately enough, with pencil-drawn illustrations.

Some of these pages will look familiar to listeners of this program; for instance, in the skeletons of coccolithophores or pouring forth from a smokestack. Narration accompanies a few of these illustrations, but just as often they speak for themselves. It lends to a meditative feel, encouraging the reader to take their time until the story winds up at a most appropriate ending.

Carbon: One Arom’s Odyssey will be available from No Starch Press starting Tuesday, May 18:

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The Alchemy Of Us

Today’s book takes a slightly different tack than the others I’ve reviewed recently. In Ainissa Ramirez’s The Alchemy Of Us, the chemical elements don’t take center stage. In fact, it’s not exactly a book about chemistry at all. In the introduction, she explains that this is a book about materials science — a discipline that, like her home state of New Jersey, is wedged between two more popular entities (physics and chemistry, in this case), and doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Rather than writing biographies of individual atoms, Ramirez describes how various inventions — like the telegraph, railroad, and photograph — inspired big changes in society. These might be my favorite kind of stories: Meandering, surprising, and something that makes me want to learn more.

Several of these stories will be familiar to listeners of The Episodic Table Of Elements. For instance, various episodes of this podcast have explored our changing perceptions of time, how glassware sparked a scientific revolution, and how simple switches became complex computer chips. However, the paths Ramirez takes are her own, and there’s plenty of new information to be found in here. She also writes in a style that brings the characters involved closer than the usual arms-length of a more formal text. It all amounts to a book that’s hard to put down.

This is the last of the book reviews for the time being. Next week, we return to our regular schedule, setting out to learn all about erbium. I’m grateful for your patience while I took a much needed break, and I’m excited to get back into the swing of things!

In the meantime, buy The Alchemy Of Us by Ainissa Ramirez:

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The Elements We Live By

So much ink has been spilled over the chemical elements that it’s difficult to approach the subject from a unique vantage point. Anja Røyne has pulled this off, though, in her book The Elements We Live By. She uses chemistry as the lens through which she explores the complete history of life on Earth. In essence, she’s telling the story of every thing through all of time.

Røyne starts at the beginning — the very beginning, from the Big Bang, compressing the events of the universe down to a single week. The universe is born on Monday, for instance, our solar system coagulates on Friday, et cetera. After astronomy, she adjusts her position to observe geology, technology, biology, industry, and agriculture, before wrapping things up with a look toward humanity’s precarious future.

It’s a clever framework, sort of a Rashomon for chemistry, and it provides plenty of opportunities for Røyne to tell stories that this writer has not seen anywhere else — for instance, Hitler occupying Norway and Denmark in order to secure critical supplies of iron.

Røyne doesn’t just write about the elements’ pasts and the way they’re used in the present, but throughout the book, outlines what each element’s future might look like. It’s a step beyond what most books about the elements do, but in hindsight, it’s an obvious inclusion.

I know this counts for very little, but the hardcover version of the book is bound with a highly pleasing soft-touch material.

I tip my hat to Røyne for finding a niche no one else had claimed before. She writes in a casual style that’s very easy to understand. It reminded me more than a bit of Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales, although that book is far more personal.

Ultimately, this book provides new and interesting information without retreading well-worn ground. I’ll certainly be using it as a source for my further research, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys this podcast.

Buy The Elements We Live By by Anja Røyne:

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The Periodic Table: A Visual Guide to the Elements

For a graphic as colorful and informative as the periodic table, many books on the subject are quite drab. That makes Tom Jackson’s book, The Periodic Table: A Visual Guide To The Elements all the more striking when you flip through its colorful pages. A lot is packed into this slim tome, which takes a holistic approach to the most famous graphic in all science.

The book does dedicate a page or two to each element, but not before outlining each group as a unit and discussing several concepts critical to learning chemistry. That’s actually my favorite part of the book. From the size of an atom to radioactivity to reactivity, The Periodic Table devotes space to topics that are often given little deliberate attention.

That said, Jackson does an admirable job describing the elements individually, too, often sharing facts that rarely appear in other popular sources. It necessarily can’t go in-depth on any of these subjects, but what it lacks in depth the book makes up for in breadth.

Every page of the book is accompanied by flat, vibrant illustrations peppered with occasional black-and-white photographs. It is a joyful approach to the subject, and it often feels more like reading a magazine than a textbook — even as it explains concepts like “bulging anions” and “accumulated action.”

And it is a spectacular tool for learning. While the podcast is a great medium for communicating the stories of chemistry, it’s difficult to explain complicated chemical concepts via an audio-only format. This is precisely where Jackson succeeds, using these bright illustrations to teach complicated ideas in a way that makes them seem simple.

I’ve acquired a fair number of books about chemistry, at this point. While I manage to find all of them useful in some way or another, some of them are not exactly enjoyable. The Periodic Table manages to succeed on both fronts, and makes a great addition for the library of anyone with so much as a passing interest in science.

Buy The Periodic Table: A Visual Guide To The Elements by Tom Jackson:

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