Last night, purely on impulse and a nudge from rabbit, I picked up a copy of The Elements by Theodore Gray. It’s an element by element rundown of the periodic table, and it’s thought-provoking, informative, enjoyable and laugh-out-loud funny. I finished it in about 4 hours, with lots of stopping to read the really interesting and funny bits to my partner. That’s the first time I’ve managed to get a book completed in the last couple years, and the first time in the last twenty years that I can recall knocking a book out in a single sitting.
The author is one of the founding partners of WolframAlpha, who are famous for Mathematica and for just being really smart folks in general. He’s also one of a rare breed of collectors who focus on trying to obtain a sample of all of the elements – or at least all the ones that are possible to obtain (in keeping with the laws of the land and the laws of physics). His writing style is conversational and witty. He gets into the underpinnings of atomic structures and electron orbitals without going so far off into the woods that a layperson wouldn’t get it. I found it particularly enlightening to read about all of everyday uses for “uncommon” elements. Uncommon not necessarily meaning less plentiful in abundance, but rather the ones that aren’t quite the household names that they probably deserve to be (and the ones that were once household names, and really shouldn’t have been). Like Radium.
I forgot to mention the photographs. Every page has big beautiful photos of the elements in their purest available form, as well as examples of objects containing those elements. If you’re already someone who watches shows like Mythbusters, this book is right up your alley. If Dancing with the Stars is more your speed, you’ll probably still enjoy turning the pages and looking at the pretty pictures – or you might just see a bunch of shiny rocks.