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Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc
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Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc

3.69 of 5 stars 3.69  ·  rating details  ·  1,316 ratings  ·  201 reviews
Like the alphabet, the calendar, or the zodiac, the periodic table of the chemical elements has a permanent place in our imagination. But aside from the handful of common ones (iron, carbon, copper, gold), the elements themselves remain wrapped in mystery. We do not know what most of them look like, how they exist in nature, how they got their names, or of what use they ar ...more
ebook, 448 pages
Published March 29th 2011 by HarperCollins e-books (first published January 1st 2011)
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Will Byrnes
Updated 6/29/13 - see link at bottom

This book is one of the reasons people will occasionally look at you, slack-jawed, and say “How did you know that?” There are a few greater feelings in life, but not many. A-W picks a few dozen of the 118 known elements and tells us a bit about them, offering stories that might be about their discovery, how they are used, or other cultural looks-see. There is unevenness, to be sure. Some stories are more interesting than others, but the overall level is quite
This wasn't quite as engaging to me as the blurb and the reviews quoted on the cover suggests -- in fact, it started to feel rather meandering -- but it is quite an interesting read, covering both the scientific history of elements, how and when they were discovered, and the social histories, why they were used and for what. Some facts I didn't know; other parts I got impatient with: yes, yes, I know all that.

Overall, worth a read if it sounds interesting to you, but be prepared to skip bits whe
D Books
The author goes off in too many directions with his story-telling for me to want to stick to reading his book. I read over a hundred pages and can't seem to find it interesting due to how the author goes about writing it. From memories of gathering as many elements of the periodic table during his childhood, to drawn out stories of how a present day person is producing charcoal, to historical tales of elements, and then to the author personally experimenting to abstract an element. It makes you ...more
Bryan Nguyen
Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales tells the story of the cultural history of the elements separated in five topics, the subjects of the book which are: power, the richness of the element or how valuable it is; fire, the changes of compounds when they react with other compounds like water; craft, the way people can manipulate the elements; beauty, the appearance of an element and how elements color our world, and earth, how an element affected a certain place or how the place affected an el ...more
Periodic tales is one of those books that grabs you by the throat and will not let you go. Full of extra-ordinary stories, co-incidences, twists and turns Hugh Aldersley-Williams meanders through the arcane history of the elements and in so doing encourages the reader to want to find out more and more. I have always been jointly fascinated by chemistry and the extra-ordinary people behind the knowledge we so take for granted and on which our civilisation hangs. Many of the people involved in the ...more
Feb 04, 2015 ^ rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who is interested in the world around them.
An extremely enjoyable book. To date it’s the closest I’ve found to one of my absolute favorite childhood books, passed down to me, long since mislaid; the title and author of which I cannot remember. That book had a red cover. Inside there were the most marvelous stories of the discovery of (amongst others) the composition of air (Scheele, Cavandish, Lavoisier), the alkali-earth metals (Davy), and helium (Kirchoff & Bunsen) in our Sun.

Mr Aldersey-Williams’ select bibliography now strongly
A disappointment. I picked this up thinking it might be weirdly informative and entertaining, like Bill Bryson's wonderfully entertaining science history "A Short History of Nearly Everything." But in the end I found almost all the anecdotes lifeless and pointless. Ultimately I gave up and put it back on the shelf about two-thirds through.
This book sits on my science shelves but it should inhabit a shelf of its own, labelled Biographies of the Inanimate (a section for Borges imaginary Library of Babel?).

To quote the author: "My aim in this book has been to show that the elements are all around us, both in the material sense that they are in the objects we treasure and under our kitchen sinks, but also around us more powerfully in a figurative sense, in our art and literature and language, in our history and geography, and that th
It must be tough to write a book on science. Make it too simplistic and it may have wider appeal but the people most likely to buy it will think it stinks. Go gung-ho into the subject and in this case chemists will love it while it cures the insomnia of the general public. Ultimately, this book is a bit of both.
I thought the background on elements could have been done better. The author leaves out some of the basics to sail off on tangents that aren't nearly as interesting. For instance with zin
A meandering personal scientific historic journey though the elements. I can understand why some folk found this hard going: the numerous diversions off to visit a shop, a mine, a lab, a library, a museum might distract from the central narrative of 'how the elements wee discovered' but actually ACTUALLY this is how science works. Something read or seen might spark the imagination which generates motivation in the midst of fruitless struggle.....

Look, if you like to know 'totally useless' facts
A brilliant concept — a book about the elements of the periodic table, covering their physical and chemical properties, the history of their discovery and their use, the roles they've played in literature and culture, etc. The execution is not quite so brilliant, but workmanlike and competent. There are some photographs, but they're mostly rather bad, and poorly reproduced to boot.

In addition to being an enjoyable and instructive read, this book has also proved to be a great source of questions
Full of the sort of information that turns up on QI, this book showed up huge holes in my knowledge... and then filled them with interesting chemicals, some of which I'd never heard of before.
If you enjoyed The Disappearing Spoon as much as I did, than this book is a no-brainer must-read.

I remember while taking a chemistry class not too long ago that though the nitty gritty details were sometimes daunting, boring, or downright frustrating, it was always the stories about the elements or their discoverers that helped put everything in context, making it a richer learning experience. Seeing as how the history behind the elements wasn't the point of taking the chemistry class I sought o
Had I not found this book on a train with a 'Read Me' sticker on it I would never have heard of it let alone read it and I would have missed out on an interesting read.Firstly I must admit that I never did much enjoy Chemistry at school in or for that matter science in general, I could never remember even the most basic of chemical formulae, and as such knew little about the Periodic Table other than seeing posters of it hung on classroom/bedroom walls. However, that said I have always been inte ...more
Was Napoleon really poisoned by his wallpaper? Why is the light in medieval St. Denis so heavenly? What makes your lipstick that luscious red? You can find the answers to these and much more esoteric questions in Periodic Tales. Author Hugh Aldersey-Williams gives a terrific tour from aluminum to zinc, including why the British have an extra syllable in Aluminum. For those of us who had only a pathetic attempt at science in school,(namely me) he writes in a simple explanatory fashion, while stil ...more
Periodic Tales is a mixed bag: the stories which snagged my attention brought in information from other disciplines and touched upon the elements' relationship to cultural icons or themes. The brief elevation of aluminum at the court of Napoleon III, for instance, or the literary fame of thallium proved much more interesting to me than, say, the discovery of the rare earths. Some of the periodic tales are dull, yes, but fortunately the book moves along quickly. That's also its potential weakness ...more
This book begins with the iconic, perhaps even mystical, Periodic Table and proceeds to bring many of the elements to life by elucidating their discovery, the wax and wane of their popularity, and the shifting roles they have played economically, militarily, artistically, and so forth.

Given the author's purpose, the information is structured in a way that makes as much sense as any, but his presentations of the individual elements can stand rather independently. The book therefore lends itself
I wanted to really like this book because my husband bought it for me when he was away on business- I can picture him staring at the book shelves, reading each description, trying to find a book that I would like... and from the description, I should have liked this book. I found it really interesting, but written in an extremely dull and hard-to-follow sort of way.

The author was British, which is fine, but he assumed I had a working knowledge of famous British chemists and, for example, referre
A really good popular science book, written by a chemist with a larger sense of how science--in this case, the history of the discovery, uses and cultural penumbra of the elements on the periodic table--intersects with other aspects of culture. The discussion is discursive, organized by large themes (power--gold, platinum, mercury and other metals; fire--sulphur and phosphorus, radium and helium; craft--zinc, lead, copper, aluminum; beauty--chromium, arsenic, neon; and earth--the rare earths, li ...more
Blablabla Aleatório
“A curiosa vida dos elementos”. Certamente não é assim que a maioria das pessoas encara os elementos da Tabela Periódica. Aquele monte de letras organizadas de maneira que às vezes parece sem sentido (mas que na verdade faz mais do que muito sentido), tem uma vida secreta, fora do domínio dos laboratórios de química, e que ultrapassam barreiras geográficas e culturais. A influência dos blocos construtores de tudo o que há no universo se estende à arte, à literatura, e pode ser vista a todo insta ...more
Roy Mesler
Given the title, I was expecting the book either to be structured alphabetically (yawn) or like the Periodic Table, journeying through the world of chemistry one row of elements at a time. But the author takes a completely different approach and divides the book into five parts based on how we interact with various elements: Power, Fire, Craft, Beauty, and Earth. For each element or group of elements, the author provides some background information about the discovery as well as some common and ...more
A really interesting and entertaining way to learn more about the elements, the periodic table, and the history surrounding them. As a non-chemist, I found the book really enjoyable and very informative. I learned more about the atomic structure of the elements, as well as their cultural influence. I did find that it was a little hard to keep up my pace during the second half. This could be due to the latter half of the book dealing with the slightly less interesting/influential of the elements, ...more
An interesting book, probably better read a chapter or two at a time as opposed to my usual all-at-once technique. Reading it in one stretch, the stories get rather repetitive and the writing style tiring. For about the first two-thirds of the book it held my interest. It is almost completely anecdotal, telling the stories surrounding the isolation and naming of a number of the elements as well as the author's personal quest to obtain some or at least visit a place connected to the element. I fo ...more
If you are into chemistry and science this might be more fun for you. I had to take it in small doses but I did find myself wishing that my sciences classes had used some of the the historical and cultural connections this book talked about. I think it would have made science even more interesting to me. I especially enjoyed some of the information about art pigments chemical histories.
A fascinating read. The author remains approachable and engaging throughout. I was absolutely delighted to read the endeavors of a chemist (as opposed to a science writer): he builds up experiments, picks up rocks, solders metals, makes fireworks.. Aldersey succeeds in evoking the omnipresence of elements by blending hard science and very relatable anecdotes. The narrative (if there is one) hinges beautifully on these two themes as the book opens with the author's childhood project to create a p ...more
Hilary G
A few weeks (or months) ago, there was a series on TV called "Chemistry: A Volatile History". At about the same period, I discovered a quiz on the Internet in which you had to name all the elements (112 of them) within 10 minutes, and was shocked at how few I knew (including NONE of the newer ones, many of which I had never even heard of). Together, these two things reawakened an old interest in science. I remember reading the biography of Marie Curie when I was quite young. I was interested in ...more
Omair Taibah
It was a brilliant read! I enjoyed every part of it. I knew some stories but not in the details within the book. ultimately it made me appreciate element-chemistry a lot more!
The only shortcoming of this book is that there’s not enough science in it. Otherwise, it’s a great summary of the story of the elements throughout human history.
L'autore ha trovato il modo di raccontare storie e caratteristiche degli elementi chimici anche ai profani, con un linguaggio semplice e uno stile piacevole.
Carey Combe
Getting better and better after the first rather predicable emphasis on gold.
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I was born in London in 1959, the same year C.P. Snow gave his infamous ‘two cultures’ lecture about the apparently eternal divide in Britain between the arts and sciences. Perhaps this is where it all begins. Forced to choose one or the other at school and university, I chose the latter, gaining an MA in natural sciences from Cambridge.

By graduation, I was aware of a latent interest in the arts,
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“Each element has a characteristic atomic spectrum, due to the absorption and emission of light associated with the unique energy levels of its orbiting electrons.” 0 likes
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