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BOOK REVIEW: The Elements by Theodore Gray

Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the UniverseElements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

What element makes up most of your body by weight? Are diamonds really the hardest known material on Earth? How can you tell a genuine neon light from one that doesn’t contain any actual neon? Are silicon-based life forms really a possibility? How did phosphorous contribute to a human population explosion? How can one tell whether one’s “Titanium” golf club actually contains titanium? What is tin used for–given that it’s not tin cans, tin foil, or tin roofs? Which noble gas has been caught forming compounds with common elements? Why do welders have to get x-rays before an MRI? Why does Ytterby, Sweden have four elements named after it? Why are gorilla lovers boycotting tantalum? Which is better for committing homicide: Thallium or Polonium? [Hint: The answer depends on whether you want to send a message or not—if you know what I mean.] How much natural uranium can a private citizen possess in the US? Which, if any, of the elements named for people are named for the person who discovered them? These are the types of questions you’ll have answered while reading this book.

The most general question the book addresses is probably, how can one collect elements without setting the world on fire? [If that doesn’t make sense, I’d recommend Randall Munroe’s book “What If?” Munroe tells us what would happen if one tried to make a wall out of one square foot containers of each of the elements (in the form of the Periodic Table)? You’ll note that I said “tried to make” and not “made,” and that should tell you something.] Gray is an element collector, and the many photographs for each element show examples of the forms (including manufactured products) in which a given element can be acquired. You’ll also find out where the gaps will remain in your collection of pure elements. [On a related note, you’ll learn which elements are radioactive.] You also may be interested to hear what element sample the FBI confiscated from the author’s collection [hint: it wasn’t Uranium or Plutonium.]

The organization of the book is straight forward. There’s front matter that gives one a rudimentary primer on chemistry and the periodic table in order to refresh the knowledge that has fallen out of your brain since high school or college. But the bulk of the book consists of one short chapter for each element. The chapters each have a cover page containing a photo and some technical information about the element that will only be of interest to the very nerdiest of nerds. Then there’s a page or so of text, which gives some interesting factoids about the element and how it’s used. Finally, there’s a collection of photos of the element and some products that contain it—with one notable exception.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read, but provides a lot of interesting information. And the author’s sense of humor shines here and there.

I read this book on a Kindle Touch. I mention this because true element groupies may find this less than ideal because of the lack of color. However, for me it was fine. Furthermore, the e-book formatting was good. Sometimes books with a lot of graphics don’t work out so well, but in this case it was not a problem.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in science, though if you know a lot about chemistry you may find it a bit remedial.

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