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Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  3,669 ratings  ·  430 reviews
Everything is made of them, from the furthest reaches of the universe to this book that you hold in your hands, including you. Like you, the elements have lives: personalities and attitudes, talents and shortcomings, stories rich with meaning. You may think of them as the inscrutable letters of the periodic table but you know them much better than you realise. Welcome to a ...more
Hardcover, SEE LIBRARIAN NOTE BELOW, 428 pages
Published February 3rd 2011 by Viking (first published January 1st 2011)
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Anne-Marie Yes. It is geared toward non-experts and non-scientists, and is engagingly written. You will probably have the best luck choosing single elements as t…moreYes. It is geared toward non-experts and non-scientists, and is engagingly written. You will probably have the best luck choosing single elements as the assignments.(less)
Jenn If you want a book that's a general overview of chemistry, The Disappearing Spoon is OK (though I would personally recommend something else, as the sc…moreIf you want a book that's a general overview of chemistry, The Disappearing Spoon is OK (though I would personally recommend something else, as the science in The Disappearing Spoon can be a bit dodgy at different points). If you're looking to learn interesting tidbits about selected elements of the periodic table without learning much about their chemistry (but a fair amount about their history/discovery), I'd read this. (less)

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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
...more
D Books
Oct 08, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Nicky
Jun 22, 2012 rated it liked it
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
...more
Andrew
Sep 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I will admit that I am starting to get a bit weary of popular science books. Do not get me wrong being trained as a chemist and working in science and engineering for many years I find these books fascinating.

The problem lies in the fact that the subject is so huge they have to give a hook, something personal that will get the reading not only interested but also to connect with the book. Now I will admit I have read my fair shore of this type of book only to realise I either have nothing in co
...more
Andrew
Mar 20, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.
Celtria
Dec 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
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
...more
Bryan Nguyen
Dec 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
^
Nov 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 and
...more
Pranav Saxena
Apr 25, 2020 rated it liked it
This is one of those books that's hard to put under any specific genre, but something you pick up looking how fun and ingenious the premise is. Who would not want to re-classify elements! Like people maintaining travel maps and collecting fridge magnets to commemorate trips, the idea for the book stems from the author's urge to collect samples of elements (using the periodic table as a map) and as he goes through the journey, aim to "understand" each element looking at its discovery and what rol ...more
Ryan Vaughan
In a past review I confessed that I was for the most part scientifically illiterate. I'm not sure how far this book went in curing that but I do know a bit more about the periodic table than I used to. I can name the elements designated as halogens ,fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine as well as a few of the noble gases ,xenon, radon, and krypton. I'm not sure if this really counts as scientific knowledge or just knowledge of scientific terms though.
While their chemical properties of the e
...more
Julia
Nov 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting. This book definitely tells a different story about the elements than what I, with a chemistry background, usually got. It assigned genders to a lot of the metals and talked about the colors and smells and sounds of the elements and the effect those things had on the way society viewed them before we could define them by their atomic structure. I learned a lot, not just that British people pronounce a lot of the elements weirdly, not just aluminum. Favorite fact: UPPU, a club th ...more
Tweedledum
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
Andres
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
...more
J.P.
Nov 15, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
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
...more
Lithezebra
I should have taken "cultural history" more literally. This was not a science book, or even much of a science history book, and I came away feeling like I hadn't learned anything inspiring.. However, if you're more interested in how people have felt about precious and useful metals, without the details of physical science, it's a well written book.
Noah Goats
Apr 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting tour through the elements of the Periodic Table, very similar to the equally good book, The Disappearing Spoon. This book focuses on the ways that the elements impact our culture and teaches a little history and science along the way. Very enjoyable.
Laurel Hicks
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
All the members of the Periodic Table, how they were discovered, their behaviors, and how they get along with each other. Had this book and Theodore Gray’s wonderful apps been available 55 years ago, I might not have gotten a C in chemistry.
Andree Sanborn
Feb 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016, kindle, science, february
It is through this cultural life rather than through experimental encounter in a laboratory that we really come to know the elements individually, and it is a cause for sadness that most chemistry teaching does so little to acknowledge this rich existence.
I am not a certified science teacher and have never wanted to be one. Yet here I am teaching Chemistry this semester: the 2nd worse class I ever took in school (physics being the first). Somehow I had to make chemistry accessible to my high
...more
Graham
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
...more
Alyson
Sep 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Alana
It took me a long while to read this, because while the individual stories were interesting, the book as a whole just wasn't engaging enough to keep me coming back to it. I finally finished it off by reading about one or two elements every day, enough that the facts and dates didn't start swimming together, and I think that worked better.

The anecdotes about the history of each element were interesting, although if you asked me to summarize any of them for you I probably couldn't. I don't think
...more
Anne-Marie Hodge
Tons of interesting facts and trivia, and a unique approach to the cultural history of chemical elements. The reason I only gave it three stars is that the narrative sometimes gets a little too boggy for my taste and a bit repetitive (how many times do we need to be reminded that elements were distilled from ores in order to be discovered, much less have the process painted for us in detail?). I think it's worth the read, however, because it does contain a lot of history and insights into just h ...more
Naila
Nov 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
This book reveals so many details about the discovery of elements as well as cases in which such elements were used in crimes,etc. The book also revealed to me how several of the famous scientists/discoverers were acquainted with one another and that they would seek each other's opinions. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in chemistry.
Arty
Mar 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Christopher Mocella
(Reviewer's disclosure: I am a chemist) - This book is an off angle take on the chemical elements from a historical perspective (how they were discovered), but also deeply on a cultural and meaningful, even poetic, perspective. The author has really done his homework on this, and I learned and was enlightened to quite a bit. I can't say that I was enthralled, finding myself skipping some pages and trying to get to interesting chemical-history parts, but the book was interesting enough to read to ...more
David Meiklejohn
Rating this book doesn't seem possible.
On one side, the author uses humor, and wonderful writing to bring to life not just the elements on the periodic table, but the construction of the periodic table, and the labor needed to prove each element as it was found.
On the other is a meandering text that verges on imperialist, at times sexist (why do metals need a sex assigned to them?) and certainly euro-centric that made me a bit uncomfortable.
I think the best way to describe this book would be if
...more
Anna Kaling
Nov 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Periodic Tales was interesting. It wasn't dry - possibly veered a little too far the other way, with the author reaching to relate the elements to art and literature, leading to some rather tortured analogies - but it wasn't dumbed down, either. I liked that it talked about the scientific properties of the elements but concentrated more on the context of their discovery and use, which I knew far less about.

I listened to the audiobook and I'll have to listen again because I did find my attention
...more
Lindsay
I struggle with the rating for this book and I’d probably settle on 2.5.

The biggest issue was the desperate need for a decent editor. Confusing organization, grammatical
problems, and tangents that strayed too far plagued this book and created significant distractions. A good editor also may have cut out the useless sections on the author’s own experiments, which came off as rushed and odd.

But despite all that, what made me rate this at 3 stars, is - Viva la Nerds! This author is in full
out ner
...more
Ashley Kennedy
Aug 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Read this for my book club and really enjoyed it. Each chapter takes an element from the periodic table and discusses its cultural impact-- how it was used throughout history, who discovered it, how it is referenced in film, song, literature, etc. Some tidbits I enjoyed:

-Agatha Christie described thallium poisoning in one of her murder mysteries, which indirectly led-- not to copycat poisonings, like you might think-- but to lives saved because healthcare professionals who read the book learned
...more
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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,
...more

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Did you set an extremely ambitious Reading Challenge goal back in January? And has this, uh, unprecedented year gotten completely in the way of...
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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.” 1 likes
“It is through this cultural life rather than through experimental encounter in a laboratory that we really come to know the elements individually, and it is a cause for sadness that most chemistry teaching does so little to acknowledge this rich existence.” 1 likes
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