Periodic Tales

Penguin, 2011

‘Science writing at its best fascinating and beautiful if only chemistry had been like this at school to meander through the periodic table with him ... is like going round a zoo with Gerald Durrell ... a rich compilation of delicious tales, but it offers greater rewards, too’ Matt Ridley

Everything is made of them, from the most distant stars to the phosphors in the screen you’re looking at now, including you. The elements are the ultimate ingredients, and Periodic Tales tells their life story.

This story does not unfold behind the closed doors of a chemistry laboratory, however. We don’t need to go to them, because the elements come to us. Each element is on its own journey, a journey into our culture. As we grow more familiar with each one, so it gathers meanings and richness.

My project led me to mines and cathedrals, into the woods and down to the sea. I recreated early experiments in order to make a few of the elements for myself, I saw how artists use them, and I read about them in novels. That’s when I realized that while we learn about the chemistry of sodium in the school lab, we actually know the element from the baleful light it casts on our city streets - a light that writers from J. M. Coetzee to Rose Tremain have used to create moods and meanings. From the gold, silver and lead of Portia’s caskets to the neon and chrome of Lolita’s America, elements both old and new are in fact deeply involved in our culture.

Unlocking their secrets, Periodic Tales will take you on a voyage of wonder and discovery, excitement and novelty, beauty and truth. Along the way, you’ll find that their stories are our stories, and their lives are inextricable from our own.

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