The Table is Set

Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything

Radioactivity is physics, but it is chemistry, too. In fact, it fulfils the project of alchemy, the mother of chemistry — the transmutation of elements.

Title: Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything
Author: Tim James
Publisher: Robinson / Hachette
Pages: 224
Price: 499

In 1974, the Jewish-Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi published a collection of short stories titled The Periodic Table. It’s not his best-known work, but it was hailed as the greatest science book ever written. The claim was contested because though the stories are named for the elements, they usually tell of other things — ‘Gold’ concerns imprisonment and ‘Zinc’ is about the people in a university chemistry lab. Nevertheless, the book powerfully conveys the impression that chemistry is not an obscure lab-bound science. It is in the air we breathe, the food we eat and all the objects that we touch, many of which, like gunpowder and graphene, have transformed our lives.

This is precisely the conviction that British schoolteacher Tim James conveys in Elemental, though it is a literal exploration of the periodic table rather than a literary work. Schoolteachers excel at engaging the attention of the easily bored, and James does not disappoint, energising his narrative with sallies into obscure but fascinating facts.
How many bananas must you eat to get radiation poisoning? Yes, bananas are radioactive since they contain potassium-40 (the potassium helps in recovering from hangovers, though). There’s even a Banana Equivalent Dose (named whimsically in the form of Röntgen Equivalent Man, or REM, the standard measure) to rate exposure to ionising radiation. But James estimates that you must steadfastly eat 14 bananas a day for a year to commit the slightest self-harm. Other estimates recommend a much higher intake.

Radioactivity is physics, but it is chemistry, too. In fact, it fulfils the project of alchemy, the mother of chemistry — the transmutation of elements. Chrysopoeia, or the artificial production of gold from base metals, was the stated goal of the art, whose practitioners included Isaac Newton (who comes across as a bit of a cad in James’ account, suppressing the careers of his detractors). Today, mercury can be transmuted into gold in nuclear reactors, but it isn’t a profitable line of business. In retrospect, it appears that stout Cortez was on the right track: colonialism is the world’s most efficient way to garner gold.

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‘The mother of all sciences has lost some glamour, but its fortunes will improve, because it’s all about money. Accountancy and law grew dramatically during the colonial period and the Industrial Revolution, because there was more money and property changing hands. The future drivers of commerce are information technology and biotechnology. The former is much more glamorous than accountancy or law, but chemistry, which is what biotechnology is all about, does not attract in quite the same measure. This is surprising, because when the biotech wave comes and regulatory controls are rationalised, it will be a tsunami dwarfing the IT phenomenon of the last 20 years.

Accessible accounts like James’ are needed to inspire new generations of chemists. It offers a breezy introduction to the logic of the periodic table, explaining why the elements are arranged as they are, from hydrogen to the actinides, and what their position in the grid tells you about the shape of their atoms and the manner in which they are likely to combine with other atoms, according to their electron shell configuration. Indeed, the table is the master cheat-sheet of chemistry. If you understand the logic of the array and of bonding, you can say goodbye to mugging up.
The modern periodic table was completed in 2016, with the inclusion of muscovium, tennessine, nihonium and organesson. Its story began in 1864, when the British chemist John Newlands proposed a Law of Octaves, indicating periodicity of the elements. The table first took concrete form in the work of Dmitri Mendeleev, whose mother took him across old Russia in search of an education, from Siberia to Moscow and on to St Petersburg. And with the advent of quantum mechanics, it became clear that the table reflected the arrangement of electrons in orbital shells.
Initially, the periodic table was full of tantalising holes, which indicated that elements remained to be found, or synthesised, since many of them did not exist naturally on earth. Helium, the second element after hydrogen, was detected in the spectrum of the sun. And the final set of elements were synthesised by atomic decay in the lab.

While physics explains the universe, chemistry explains the world we live in, and the world within ourselves — the mystery of life. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, “We are all made of stardust.” How that dust from the early universe was transformed into amino acids, the alphabet of the language in which life is programmed, was demonstrated in 1952 by the American chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey. They created a lightning flash in a primordial atmosphere, and harvested more amino acids than exist in nature. The stereotype of chemistry is totally misconceived, it appears, and the science can be just as dramatic as physics.

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