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The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements [Hardcover]

Philip Ball
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 Sep 2002
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.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (12 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192841009
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192841001
  • Product Dimensions: 20.7 x 12.8 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,020 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

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.

Product Description


An engaging chronology of the elements, from the Greek philosophers who thought the world was made only from earth, air, fire, and water, to the work of twentieth-century radiochemistry in extending the periodic table.

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In 1624 the French chemist Etienne de Clave was arrested for heresy. Read the first page
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars An apology for a book 23 July 2010
It would be difficult to make less of this fascinating topic. Fortunately there is John Emsley's wonderful 'The Building Blocks of Nature' and now Sam Kean's delightful 'The Disappearing Spoon', sneeringly reviewed by Philip Ball in Nature. An author who can't do it himself should not deride one who can. As for his take on "pointless attempts to find a new taxonomy of the elements... spirals, pretzels, pyramids and hyper-cubes", it just shows that he has not had the patience to explore these properly.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Elementary? 25 Mar 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a clever little book(and therein lies the problem).
It does though manage to pack into its covers quite a lot of information - some of it in a novel manner. I liked the off-beat section on the properties of some odd elements e.g. Palladium. This would have been helped though, by increasing the number of elements described in this chapter by about ten times. The chapter on Gold is fascinating, as also is the one on isotopes. But it is by no means as exhaustive as the title might suggest.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Elements: A Short Primer In Thoughtful Prose 3 Jan 2003
By Bruce Crocker - Published on Amazon.com
Philip Ball's The Ingredients is a short and sweet introduction to the chemical elements. It is not a comprehensive description of each of the 110+ elements that appear on the periodic table. Rather it is a history of the concept of an element and a definition of what an element is done in context with examples. All the important terms from Chemistry 101 are there - atom, electron, element, isotope, neutron, nucleus, proton - as are all the important people and events in the history of the elements, but it is done in Ball's extremely readable prose style. Even though I've taught basic chemistry at the high school level and I've heard all this stuff before, I thoroughly enjoyed this short, but concept dense book.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Also an OUP Very Short Introduction 27 Jun 2008
By Clare Pawling - Published on Amazon.com
As-of this writing, June 2008, "The Ingredients" is in-print as an Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction titled "The Elements".
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gentle introduction to what the world is made of 7 July 2005
By Michael Bond - Published on Amazon.com
There are 92 naturally occuring elements. They have been here since the Earth cooled, but only in the last couple of centuries have we truly come to understand them. In 'the ingredients', Phillip Ball takes the reader on a fast ride through the development of our understanding of the elements. Aristotle and his contemporaries saw everything pretty much as a combination of earth, wind, fire, and water. Variations of this view lasted well in the middle ages.

The chapter on gold, precious from ancient times, is a bridge, bringing us into the modern age, where we see the development of the Periodic Table, an organization of information about the elements. Scientific method and technological advances allowed chemists to identify each of the elements. Physics, radiochemistry and quantum mechanics provided an explanation of why they act as they do.

There are interesting discussions of medicine, alchemy and other topics. The chapter on manmade elements is also interesting.

This little book was fun to read and should be easily followed by the non-scientific reader.
5.0 out of 5 stars Well done! 24 July 2013
By William E. Isakson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A wonderful history of man's association with the chemical elements. Lots here on transition metals and isotopes, but it does not stop there.
4.0 out of 5 stars Light reading, informative, and fun 19 Jan 2013
By A. Berke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Let me start by saying that this is not an "all-exhausive" tour of every important piece of information about every element. Instead, it is several vignettes within which Ball easily wraps a discussion of many of the seminal discoveries and elements that make up our world. Most of the periodic table can be found in the index, but a few elements (and their stories) take precedence in the narrative. Oxygen and gold in particular are devoted many pages, both in backstory and in importance to us now. In particular, the history of Lavoisier (Ball calls him, fairly appropriately, 'the Newton of chemistry') and his refutation of the Aristotelean view of four elements (which is itself the subject of the first chapter) is excellent.

Gold is also provided with a chapter of its own, but after that the narrative moves more towards broader discussions. We learn about Mendelev and the building of the periodic table into its present form (and it helps one understand *why* this form is so useful). We also learn about Seaborg and the hotbed of nuclear chemistry in Berkeley, California (among others) that gave us so many of the heavier elements. Ball also has a chapter on isotopes, those elements with more or fewer neutrons than 'normal' and why these (generally) less abundant siblings are so useful. They help us in medicine, dating (as in carbon dating), energy, and so much more.

This book is quite short and thus is a whirlwind tour of the elements that make up the periodic table. However, since this book does not pretend to be a graduate textbook in Inorganic chemistry, I would say that it is very successful at demystifying the ingredients of our world. You will learn a bit about most of the elements, some related history to boot, and will be left with a much greater appreciation for all the neat stuff that each element's unique properties enables (as examples: the colors in your old cathode ray television, the chips in your computer, the converter your car uses to remove toxins in exhaust). Fun for a chemist, this book is even better suited to the 'layman'. I only wish the fuller narratives of the first couple chapters did not shift to what felt like a series of quick hits later in the book (in an attempt to cover as many elements as possible, I suppose).
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