01 January 2007

Nature's Building Blocks

Nature's Building Blocks, by John Emsley (a Cambridge chemist), has been hanging around the periphery of my reading for almost two years. It has in its time been the reading material of choice in the guest bath, it accompanied me to the doctor's office to pass the time waiting for last year's annual physical, and it spent much of last autumn sitting by the porch door for me to take out and read any time I had just a few minutes to spare. Such a book could not possibly appear on my "Now Reading" list, but nor could a book as fascinating and enjoyable as this not warrant a full review.

This is a delightful little book of the sort that you can open to any page and find something interesting. It takes the form of a series of essays about each element on the periodic table (as well as one on the history of the table itself). These range in length from 9 pages for major elements like hydrogen or oxygen, to 3 pages for uncommon things like hafnium, or heavy radioactive elements like berkelium that mainly exist in laboratories. There are also separate essays covering the "Transfermium Elements," which are created in laboratories and only last a few seconds (if that), and the Lanthanides (also called "rare-earth elements," though they are hardly rare) as a group (each lanthanide has its own entry as well).

Each essay is divided under several subheadings: Cosmic Element, Human Element, Food Element, Medical Element, Element of History, Element of War, Economic Element, Environmental Element, Chemical Element, and Element of Surprises. Each element has at least one surprise, except one, which is only surprising because there is absolutely nothing surprising about it. I won't tell you which one it is. You probably haven't heard of it anyway; I hadn't.

The book is just plain fascinating, even if you have no interest in chemistry. It's written for a general audience and the prose is light and engaging. Pick an element, any element, and you will find something unique and interesting about it. Wondering why there's manganese in your daily multivitamin? You'll find out why here. Never heard of tantalum? Well, don't feel bad; who has? Amazingly, there's a form of tantalum carbide that grows a crystal harder than diamond. Pretty nifty, eh? It's probably not going to replace diamond rings any time soon, though.

Nothing in this book is earth-shattering. It won't change your life or make you more popular at parties. But it is an intriguing and often amusing read, and if you can find a copy at the bookstore (good luck), you'll certainly enjoy having it on your bookshelf for a few minutes' diversion or the settling of disputes.

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