What is it made of? What is in it? We have become a society fascinated about composition, and for good reason. Lead in petrol shows up in the snow fields of the Antarctic and mercury poisons fish in South America. Radon from the Earth poses health hazards in regions built on basaltic rocks and natural arsenic contaminates wells in Bangladesh. Calcium supplements combat bone-wasting diseases and iron alleviates anaemia. There are elements that we crave, and those we do our best to avoid. This book reveals that the story of the elements is not simply a tale of a hundred or so different types of atom, each with its unique properties and idiosyncrasies, but a story about our cultural interactions with the nature and composition of matter. It shows that understanding the elements is not merely a matter of reading a list, but of engaging with the reasons why people have long believed the world to be an elaborate composite of simpler materials, and how they sought to identify those primary substances.
Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.