Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Elements

Fifth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Elements
by Theodore Gray
I started collecting elements in 2002 […and] by 2009, I had assembled nearly 2,300 objects representing every element, the possession of which is not forbidden by the laws of physics or the laws of man. […] Some elements can be experienced in large quantities, like the 135-pound iron ball I keep in my office for people to trip over. Others are best enjoyed in responsible moderation -- keep too much uranium in the office, and people start asking questions (keep over 15 pounds, and the Feds start asking questions).
The Elements is a lush and visually stunning coffee-table book that showcases those samples and provides a terrific individual "biography" of each element.

Gray opens with an overview of the Periodic Table and its organization of elements into groups according to their similar characteristics. But then he explores them, element by element, in order of their atomic number rather than by group -- an effective method because the repeated returns to the various groups reinforce the group characteristics while familiarizing readers (YA and adult) with the individual elements.

Each biography is a two-page spread -- the left a full-page photo of one of those samples from Gray’s collection, and the right an array of text and images that detail the element’s history, uses, and technical specs (atomic weight; density; crystal structure; orbital electron arrangement; melting and boiling points; emission spectrum). Though it's a reference work, I read this book straight through -- often thinking, “okay, just one more” but then unable to resist that each element’s text ends with a teaser for the next one, and that Gray is liberal with trivia, personal experience, and wit. He dubs Tellurium the most melodic name and discusses the politics involved in naming new elements, finishing: “And so it is that we come to the end of our journey through the periodic table not with a bang, but with a committee.”

He’s the Bill Bryson of the Periodic Table!

P.S. The book’s enhanced e-version seems reason enough to buy an iPad :) Take a look at the book and the app with author Theodore Gray here.

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