Even though my interest in science developed in my early teens, and even though my love of reading developed earlier, I didn’t read many books about science in my childhood. In fact, only two science books stand out in my memory: Nigel Calder’s The Key to the Universe: A Report on the New Physics (Penguin, 1978) and Jane Werner Watson and Rudolph F. Zallinger’s Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (Paul Hamlyn, 1960).
Calder’s book, which I read soon after it came out, influenced my decision to study physics at university. Watson and Zallinger’s book made an earlier and different impression. The 10-year-old me was enthralled by Zallinger’s vivid and lively illustrations, such as the one above. Not only were the dinosaurs and other creatures depicted as they might have been, but so too were the plants and landscapes.
Those memorable books came to mind when I read—or, rather, dipped into—a book that Tess Woods of Newman Communications had sent me to review, Tom Jackson’s The Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table (Shelter Harbor Press, 2012). The book is one of three in the Ponderables series. The others, also written by Jackson, are about mathematics and astronomy.
The bulk of Elements consists of 100 short, chronologically arranged chapters. The first, “Stone Age Chemistry,” discusses fire, food, and cave paintings. The last covers the recently discovered Higgs boson. In between, Jackson tells the story of humankind’s gradually growing awareness of chemical science and its applications.
It’s a measure of Jackson’s skill that I couldn’t tell at what age group his book is aimed. Inquisitive high schoolers and adults alike will enjoy and learn from what’s inside. Despite my professional interest in science, I discovered something new from almost every chapter. Did you know that the first plastic polymer, Parkesine, was invented in 1856 by Alexander Parkes and that it found use, decades later, as celluloid film stock? Or that the Periodic Table’s resemblance to an upside-down game of Solitaire is not a coincidence? I didn’t.
But Elements is more than a collection of interesting facts. Much of chemistry is ultimately about the arrangement and rearrangement of electrons. As if to emphasize that point, Jackson weaves the history of electromagnetism into his story. Readers learn about the first batteries, electrolysis, Coulomb’s law, J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron, and other electromagnetic milestones. Radioactivity and quantum mechanics are also covered.
The book is also more than a history of past discoveries. Its penultimate section, “Imponderables,” outlines seven open questions in chemistry, including these three: Why is nature one-sided? Is bismuth radioactive? Does francium exist? The book’s effect on young readers, I hope, will be to inspire some of them to meet the continuing challenge of understanding the universe and its contents.
The book’s effect on older readers, I expect, will be to impress on them the sheer scale of scientific progress. No other human endeavor—not art, not literature, not politics, not even exploration—can match the immensity of science’s upward leap from making fire to discovering the Higgs.