How does the periodic table tell the story of our scientific and cultural history? Matt Ridley investigatesby Matt Ridley / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
Engraving of an early firework display at Whitehall from Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, which tells the story of the elements
The best science writing emulates fiction, creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric material. The science writer’s trick is to transmute the dull tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968); Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat’s Last Theorem, 1997).
The elements’ most renowned appearance in literature is in chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975). Each chapter used an element relevant to his life at the time as a theme. (This partly inspired me to link each chapter of my 1999 book, Genome, to a human chromosome.) But the periodic table itself is ideal material for “novelisation,” because each element has its own personality, both physical and cultural. It is a cast of vivid characters already.
Meet the metals: precious gold, monetary silver, indispensable iron, conducting copper, heavy lead, light aluminium, utilitarian tin, liquid mercury and tough tungsten. Meet the colourful ones: black carbon, white calcium, orange sodium, blue cobalt, bright neon, shiny chromium, green arsenic. Meet the life-ingredients: vital oxygen, fiery phosphorus, light-footed potassium, villainous chlorine, neutral nitrogen and hellish sulphur. Meet the exotics: priceless palladium, massive uranium, terrifying plutonium, novelty niobium, foodie-fashionable selenium, strange vanadium (inexplicably a favourite of marine creatures called tunicates). Meet the nonentities: boron, zinc, nickel, argon and antimony.
In a new book, Periodic Tales (Viking), Hugh Aldersey-Williams tells the stories of these elements in a fascinating and beautiful literary anthology, bringing them to life as personalities. A better analogy for what he has created than a novel or a play may be a menagerie. To meander through the periodic table with him, as he tells you the history, the cultural significance and the physical properties of each element, is like going round a zoo with Gerald Durrell.
If only chemistry had been like this at school. If only the details of valence and nuclear mass and alkalinity had been smuggled in with tales of character and kin. This is science as it was before the two cultures diverged—when Humphry Davy wrote poetry and Samuel…