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 Johnson did chemistry experiments.
What is especially clever about the book is the lack of obvious order. Aldersey-Williams does not group the elements by date of discovery, or by atomic number, nor devote a chapter to each “family” of similar elements. Instead he tells some 40 different stories, most of which are about single elements, grouping them into five parts: power, fire, craft, beauty and earth.
The result is that ancient myths rub shoulders with avant-garde art, and nuclear physicists with 18th-century dilettantes. He attempts to recreate famous discoveries—such as extracting phosphorus from his own pee following a recipe of Robert Hooke’s. He visits obscure experts and meets amateur traders who can supply him with samples of molybdenum and rhodium. He travels to works of art which show off particular elements: Frank Gehry’s titanium Guggenheim in Bilbao; the Bromo Seltzer tower in Baltimore.
He tries to find out who had the bright idea of including the element europium in euro notes: euro-secrecy defeats him. He tracks down the obsolete Ytterby mine on a Swedish island, where most of the “rare earths” were discovered. (Partly because of their metal mining industry, Swedes have discovered more elements than any other nationality.) He delves into the bizarre history of occultum: an element “discovered” by the Victorian clairvoyant theosophist, ex-priest Charles Webster Leadbeater, who claimed to use his sixth sense to see individual atoms. And he explains Agatha Christie’s choice of thallium as a murder weapon in The Pale Horse. Thallium poisons with diverse symptoms, helping to prolong the mystery; at least three real thallium murderers have been caught because of the novel.
This is a rich compilation of delicious tales, but it offers a greater reward, too. The elements tell the story of human specialisation; and specialisation explains prosperity. When people have to be self-sufficient they have to be generalists, as good at foraging as they are at entertaining themselves—so your food and entertainment are only as good as you can make them. But when people began to exchange things they were good at for those others were good at, the result was a higher standard of living for all. So I get the Coen brothers to make movies for me, Delia Smith to try recipes for me, Steve Jobs to design my electronic products and the local supermarket to source my food—all in exchange for the one or two things I produce. The more we specialise as producers, the more richly we diversify as consumers.
The discovery of the elements shadows and to some extent explains this evolving history of specialisation. The ancients knew of just seven metals: gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead and mercury. By giving each specialised roles, they improved their living standards—tin for hardening bronze, lead for moulding, silver for coinage and so on. By the modern era only one more metal—zinc—had joined them (although platinum was known to natives of the Americas). But then came a steady flow of new metals, each of which finds its particular role in technology and society: tungsten for hardness, aluminium for lightness, chrome for polish, neodymium for magnets, barium for medicine. Each finds its niche as surely as each profession and vocation does in human society. Just as our story is one of specialisation, so the story of chemistry is one of purification.
Each metal marches into our lives along a path from novel to banal, says Aldersey-Williams. Aluminium was once so difficult to make that Napoleon III used aluminium cutlery for only his most favoured guests and gave his son, the Prince Imperial, an aluminium rattle. Then it became so cheap that it was considered, well, cheap. Titanium, once rare and exotic, is becoming ubiquitous. For niobium and tantalum, Aldersey-Williams writes, “the journey is just beginning.” This is a tantalising thought. There are so many elements whose talents we have barely begun to use.