Hugh Aldersey-Williams‘ book Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements shows off the author’s wide range of knowledge, willingness to investigate, and ability to tell a compelling story. Starting with gold and finishing with a pilgrimage in search of rare earth metals, Aldersey-Williams covers a fair fraction of the periodic tale – identifying the importance of elements not only in chemistry, but in diverse fields including art, literature, and theology. There are also many nice little nuggets of information, such as how Inuit steel tools were made from the nickel-containing natural stainless steel in some meteorites.
In addition to tracking down physical specimens of elements, the author tries to extract some on his own using natural materials said to be abundant sources (urine for phosphorus, kelp for iodine, even testing whether rotting herring luminesces). This admirable curiosity and willingness to undertake experiments adds much to the book.
Despite being about 400 pages, the book is a very quick read. It is well worth a look for anybody who is curious about the building blocks of the world or, alternatively, who is interested in seeing how the process of scientific discovery interacts with other human undertakings.