September 07, 2017


Periodic Table: The Definitive Visual Catalog of the Building Blocks of the Universe. By Sean Callery and Miranda Smith. Scholastic. $19.99.

     The periodic table is something of a marvel. First arranged by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, to provide an orderly display of the 62 elements known at that time, it has stood up with additions but no essential modifications as more and more naturally occurring elements have been discovered and synthetic ones have been created – 11 of those by a team led by 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-winner Glenn Seaborg and four others more recently. Now there are 118 named elements, and the periodic table – beautifully displayed over two very colorful pages in Periodic Table by Sean Callery and Miranda Smith – looks as if it is finally complete. It almost certainly is not: the same science that has produced elements that decay in milliseconds will likely produce more of them in the future, or some more-advanced science will. But for now, the table’s neat and apparently complete appearance makes Periodic Table an especially wonderful, exciting and often surprising guide to the building blocks of the universe and some scientifically created supplements to them.

     One wonderful aspect of Mendeleev’s design was its predictive value: the care of the elegant arrangement meant that the table had holes into which yet-undiscovered elements would theoretically fit once they were found. And sure enough, over time, new elements were discovered that did indeed fit where they were supposed to. The “elements yet to be discovered” notion is one highly amusing, umm, element of a Tom Lehrer song from 1959 in which the entertainer and Harvard math lecturer rapidly listed all the then-known elements (102 of them) to the tune of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. At the very end, Lehrer sang that “there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.” Or, as it turned out, manufactured.

     All the currently known elements, natural or created, are discussed accurately and often quite entertainingly in Periodic Table. For instance, a section on “the wild bunch” includes “fizzy, excitable elements” that “are always mixing with other elements to form compounds” – that is, elements such as hydrogen, potassium, sodium and magnesium. “Mighty metals” are distinguished because “if you heat and hit them, they can change shape without losing strength or falling apart” – these include iron, titanium, mercury, vanadium and others. Elements are discussed both in groups and individually. Cobalt, for example, “can be a show off, but is also sneaky,” because on the one hand it brings “rich, deep blue to pottery and glass” and on the other hand can be mixed with water to create invisible ink. The transuranic elements – heavier ones than uranium, which is the heaviest naturally occurring element – get brief mentions here that indicate just how little is known about them. For example, element 114, flerovium, is made “from a nuclear reaction between plutonium and calcium. Not enough flerovium has been made to measure its physical or chemical properties, but it is most likely to be a soft, dense metal that changes color when exposed to air.”

     There are some elements that are quite strange enough even though they occur in nature – including some that are quite dangerous, as explained on a page labeled “Poisonous Elements.” Here the authors discuss, among other things, the killing in 2006 of former Russian secret agent Alexander Livinenko: he “was murdered in London when his tea was poisoned with a high dose of polonium,” an element that “is found naturally in the human body because it exist [sic] at low levels in our environment, and it is present in the food chain.” Yes, there are some typos and some inelegant phrases in Periodic Table, but there is so much here that is fascinating that the book’s flaws are minor and quite easy to overlook. Page after page contains amazing material. For example, the authors write about element 67, holmium, that its name is “the Latin name for Stockholm, the city of this element’s discoverer. [Holmium] is not magnetic, but it boosts the magnetic field of other metals, making them more powerful. Added to yttrium iron garnets, it makes lasers for surgery.” That is the sort of fascinating real-world fact to be found everywhere in this book. Readers wanting basic details will certainly get them here: atomic number and weight, boiling and melting points, number of electrons, protons and neutrons, and more. Those seeking a journey of discovery will find that, too. Periodic Table is a book whose fascinations are so many that it can be dipped into again and again for new tidbits of information – or read section by section or page by page for material on a single specific element or group of them. Visually striking, filled with gorgeous photos and other images as well as packed with absorbing facts, the book is a feast not only for the eyes but also for the mind – a science book that can, and should, be read as much for fun as for finding out about the fundamentals of the universe.

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