We’ll go to the land of the ice and snow… and figure out exactly where that is, too.
Element 68 plays an important role in stitching together the World Wide Web — for better or for worse.
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:
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: