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.
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