Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Elemental by Tim James

Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything by Tim James
Abrams Press, 2019
Hardcover, 224 pages

Chemistry is not an abstract subject happening in dingy laboratories: it's happening everywhere around us and everywhere within us.

In order to understand chemistry, therefore, we have to understand the periodic table, that hideous thing you probably remember hanging on the wall of your chemistry classroom. Glaring down at you with all its boxes, letters, and numbers, the periodic table can be intimidating. But it's nothing more than an ingredients list, and once you've learned to decode it, the periodic table becomes one of your greatest allies in explaining the Universe. (4)
Tim James' Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything is a short, fun book that purports to help you understand how the world works. The title might seem a little misleading since it appears more as a history of chemistry, but James intertwines that history with explanations, experiments, and anecdotes to focus on how the elements listed in the periodic table (and how they work together...or don't) are important to our everyday lives. With the book jumping around quite a bit though, 'focus' might not be the correct word.

There are plenty of books aimed at the public attempting to explain the elements and the periodic table, several of which are listed in the notes section of Elemental. So why choose this one to read? Being a teacher, James presents the material in a way that is guaranteed to get your attention. For example, the first chapter introduces us to chlorine triflouride, "the most flammable substance ever made." Judging by the depth of the hole ClF3 burned through concrete at a chemical plant in Shreveport, Louisiana (over a meter), I'd say it's probably a fair claim. The educational part comes from investigating why ClF3 behave the way it does. You're not going to learn every detail for the elements or be able to predict how a particular compound will behave, but you'll have a better grasp of the elements based on where they are in the table, plus an appreciation on how our understanding of chemistry has developed.

Along with the educational material is entertainment. Corny jokes and hand drawings go with the conversational style, making it easy to remember the information. A sample of the humor, which probably causes as many groans in the classroom as much as it does on the page: in the section titled What is a Metal? he says,“When we hear the word metal we all picture the same thing: Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, the bassist/vocalist of English rock band Motörhead. May he rest in peace.” I'll give him points for being brave enough to go with the cornball routine, and I'm almost embarrassed to say I enjoyed quite a bit of it. Almost.

If you have a student looking to explore the periodic table at the junior-high or high school level, Elemental is a quick and entertaining way to get a grasp of what they'll be studying in a chemistry class. The book isn't meant to cover everything, but combine this with some of the many online resources available and they'll have a solid foundation to build on in a class. In my case, I just wanted an entertaining and informative read, and Elemental fit the bill. In addition, now I know which element, if removed from human history, would have no impact on our development.

A nearby college puts on an entertaining physics show for kids and their families twice a year and they're motto is "If you can't have fun with physics, you're not a very fun person." It's clear that James takes a similar view towards chemistry, making it fun for students and readers in order for them to understand it better. Recommended.

Update: one thing I forgot to mention but meant to...if you're like me, you're going to want to get a good copy of the periodic table when reading this. I was surprised that a book about the periodic table doesn't have one in it (beyond sketches of the table). Fortunately I had picked up a couple of periodic table placemats a few years ago for school purposes and those fit the bill perfectly.

Tim James' YouTube page


mudpuddle said...

i struggled through two semesters of Chemistry in uni and came to understand it a little... a book like this might have helped quite a bit. i think i'll invest some money in it. tx for featuring it.

Dwight said...

Even though I see some organization in the book, the approach still feels a little scattershot. As I said, you won't learn "everything," but his style insures you'll pick up a few things. Definitely check out what's available on YouTube and through online courses if you're interested in digging deeper.

There was a 3-part series I remember watching a few years ago (on Netflix at the time) when we went over the periodic table for school that was excellent. I don't remember the name and can't find it with a quick search. I do remember it had this periodic table in the show. Anyway, all that to say there are a ton of
excellent resources available out there.

mudpuddle said...

i ordered a copy from Abe and i'll see if my interest is appropriately stimulated.... science has long been attractive, but my assimilation of it has been limited by my talent, so to speak... tx for the suggestions, tho...