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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars

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on 26 August 2013
Not quite as exciting or gripping as it might have been given that it purports to be a 'popular' science book. However it does have some interesting information about these really very obscure elements which it would be hard work to research.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Periodic Table is meant to be dull - a hurdle for every pupil studying science. Like many scientific discoveries, it seems boring because pupils are not taught the chronological story, with all the wrong turns taken en route (schools haven't got the time). But teaching it in that way is like recounting a whodunnit by saying "A body's been found. This is the person who did it and this is how he did it". The fun and intellectual challenge of trying to work out who did it goes out of the window. Only by seeing the twists and turns can you appreciate the eventual discovery. This book gives you all those twists and turns (at times in so much detail that it goes beyond being a popular science book).

The book starts off with the story about how the Periodic Table came into being. I was surprised how little I knew and how many people independently put forward their own attempts at categorising the elements.

The book moves onto the impact of physics on the Periodic Table, such as the discovery of radioactivity which was to lead to the discovery of various elements such as polonium and radium.

The book then recounts the discovery of seven elements. I found the stories interesting, including for example that Francium was the last naturally occurring element to be discovered and its rarity. The latter made me smile because in a certain (very) popular science TV programme, the presenter said that they had tried to get some Francium for an experiment but they wouldn't let them because it's radioactive. It took that as gospel, unaware until I read this book that there was more to it than that - there is estimated to be only about 30g of Francium in the entire Earth's crust.

As the book is so specialised, there are nuggets of information that you come across that I haven't discovered elsewhere. For example, that it was suggested that the new element be called "catium" to mean cation because it would form the largest cation in the periodic table (I like that name and the rationale behind it, personally - shame it wasn't chosen). The name was objected to because it sounded like the English word "cat" and might therefore be ridiculed (that's alarmist in my opinion - I have never found the general public that interested in chemistry). Other information that I was unaware of include that it was named after the discoverer's (Marguerite Perey's) home country (rather like Germanium). And then there is the politics which made me smile - Marguerite Perey had two mentors, one of whom thought he was the only one - as neither could agree which of them should share the credit with Perey, Perey was allowed to keep the discovery to herself. Politics gets into everything.

This is a good book. It does get heavy at times, going into science that is new to me, so this is no popular science book (so I have deducted one star) - it is nothing like a Brian Clegg  or Bill Bryson book, for example. It is a popular science book at times, and therefore well worth a read, but it does go beyond that and into a university physics textbook so it is not for everyone. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it.
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Eric Scerri, author of this book, is the wizard of the periodic table. He knows more about the chemistry student's bane, and about elements and their history, than pretty well anyone else, full stop. His book The Periodic Table is the ultimate history of the development of this distinctive layout of the elements showing their relationships. But the blessing of his expertise and knowledge can also be a bit of a curse.

The trouble is, because he does know so much, Scerri does sometimes give us a bit too much detail. In this book, after a couple of chapters introduction to the origins of the periodic table (the least readable part of the book, which he hints you may wish to skip over) he tells us about the discovery of seven `missing' elements, added late to their places in the table: protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium.

What is great about these discoveries is that they aren't straight forward. Far from it. In fact in many cases there were stumbles along the way, with incorrect claims to have found a missing element, or downright disputes over who got there first. This is a very useful insight into the real nature of scientific discovery - not the cut and dried, steady progress of a school history of science book, but the messy and sometimes downright acrimonious progress of real people making discoveries and desperate to get there first.

There is, obviously, a huge opportunity for storytelling here, but the downside of the approach taken for the non-specialist popular science reader is that, although the personalities are there, we get rather too much of the dry science and step by step analysis of their work, and rather too little of the people and how they interacted. That's a shame. It doesn't by any means invalidate the book, but it does mean that it is far more suitable for history of science students and chemists who want to really get into the origins of some of their elements than it is for the general reader who wants to get a better picture of how science really works, along with some interesting history.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I enjoy reading "popular science" books. My degree was in Physics, so I tend to favour that area, but thought I would give this one a go. The blurb held out the potential for a fascinating story of the real people involved in the real science behind the discovery of the last 7 elements (apart from those short-lived unstable exotica produced by nuclear fusion, etc.)

Sadly, I was left somewhat disappointed.

The author is clearly a real expert in his field, and uses all the technical jargon with aplomb. For someone who only took Chemistry to O-level, this proved a bit of an obstacle. I don't have a problem with using the right terminology, but this book failed to use any of the devices applied so successfully in other books, e.g., "break-out boxes" containing simpler explanations of key terms, as they arise, which the knowledgeable can skip, but offer a life-saver to the beginner).

The best aspect of the book is showing the scientific process in all its reality - the mistakes, wrong turns, displays of ego and petulance, etc. There are occasional flashes of humour, for example, after explaining how Otto Hahn nefariously managed to claim credit for protactinium at the expense of Lisa Meitner, the author points out that subsequently an element that was to be called Hahnium was renamed Meitnerium, thereby inflicting poetic justice! However, I would have like to have more about the scientists involved, their backgrounds, drivers and personalities, and a bit less about the minutiae of different chemical processes tried, failed and refined.

It should be noted that almost half the thickness of the book is taken up with all the many, many references cited in the main text. In this regard, this is very must an academic book, and clearly intended to be a definitive reference for this particular area of scientific history.

I hope my review places the book well in terms of the readers to whom it will appeal (and as you can see from some of the other reviews with their mixture of ratings). If you are interested in knowing more about the exact chemical processes whereby the last 7 elements were synthesized, and the pitfalls and missteps that were encountered on the way, this books will be fascinating. If you are more interested in the human stories behind the science, you will find fewer pearls amongst the mass of detail. If you have Chemistry knowledge only to O-level (GCSE) or below, expect to be skipping over a lot of jargon on the way (or doing lots of Googling!)
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VINE VOICEon 5 September 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
My education revolved around the Arts and although I know that the Periodic Table, which lists elements according to their atomic weight, is fundamental to Chemistry, I don't really know why. My husband, on the other hand, though retired, is a qualified industrial chemist; and this book appealed to both of us, though for different reasons.

A Tale of Seven Elements written by Eric Scerri, a lecturer at UCLA and a world-wide authority on the history and philosophy of the Periodic Table, is a book written by a very knowledgeable academic but one that also reveals the more human side of science with its arguments, jealousies and feuds between scientists whilst trying to be the winner in the race to the next discovery . This is the reason that the book will appeal to a wider audience than that of a 'traditional' science book, coupled with the fact that Dr Scerri is capable of producing a very interesting narrative indeed.

Two quotes sum up this book for me: the first being where Scerri quotes Joel Levy as writing: 'the history of science is boring; the traditional version, that is [...] often presented in museums, textbooks and classrooms; but it is an invention.....', Scerri adds that his book as well as Levy's 'aims to tell a more interesting, more accurate, and hopefully more satisfying account of what actually happened'. This statement sets the tone for the read ahead and one realises that this is not a stuffy, boring book.

Scerri's second quote sounds quite controversial by statng: 'actual science is full of mistakes and wrong turns. We don't ever reach "the truth". The best we can hope for is an approach to the truth, in perhaps an incremental fashion, meaning that current science is necessarily incorrect'. With quotes such as this, I doubt whether any reader will nod off during the book.

One can't please all of the people all of the time; and most of the introduction to the Periodic Table went over my head and seemed to last an age; but Scerri's science with emotions and drama surrounding the discovery of the seven elements had me hooked.

Needless to say my husband loved the book, most likely because it was interesting and also because he understood it!

A book that will impress one's visitors, but also an informative and interesting read.
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on 22 September 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"7 Elements" is very much focussed towards the social, competitive, even hostile side of science - a side many scientists prefer to play down, as it shows that even those who believe in the pure logic of the scientific method are prone to human flaws just like the rest of us. In that sense, this book is more a dramatised documentary about people and rivalries than it is about cold, pure science and that aspect means it doesn't suffer the dryness of most scientific literature.

That said, don't be fooled into thinking you can walk straight into this. The author assumes you have at least a passing familiarity with scientific terminology in general and chemistry terminology in particular (tetravalence, anyone?) and this can leave you wondering what's going on at times. My experience with chemistry is limited to an A-level for which I didn't get a very good grade, and that was over a decade ago. Inevitably then, despite being interested in the subject matter, there were times when I got stuck and had to look up particular words or terms to understand certain specific points.

The book handles the subject matter well (at least, from a non-expert's perspective) and tells compelling stories whilst providing genuine historical information and interest about our path towards filling out the harder to reach corners of the periodic table. Just don't expect this to be immediately accessible without a little research, unless you're already a chemist.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 17 September 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Quite short at just over 200 pages plus extensive notes and bibliography.

The author's style is short, punchy and direct. There are few extraneous words or descriptions here.

Content is fascinating and understandable by the general reader.

If you have an interest in the sciences then this will be a welcome read.
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VINE VOICEon 4 September 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The periodic table is one of the most remarkable discoveries and patterns identified in science. What is even more remarkable, is that when it was first devised, there were some notable gaps. This is the story of those gaps, and how they were eventually filled. It is the story of an emerging science, bickering boffins, and nationalism, where fairness wins in the end. This is the kind of book which will appeal to quiz fans, as well as those with an interest in chemistry. It is very well written, and looks not only at how the elements were discovered, but what their practical use is. It opened my eyes to the rapid advancement of the modern world in a way that was surprising - I had thought it all down to advances in computing, not realising the part chemistry had to play.

I would highly recommend this. It is a fascinating book, and the kind which is both interesting and useful to have on the shelf.
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on 8 October 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
English chemist Henry Mosely identified - based on atomic numbers - that seven elements were 'missing' from the periodic table in 1913.

This book focuses mostly on the discovery of these elements - up to 1945 - including the personalities involved and the uses these elements were put to.

The book concludes with the discovery of the remaking elements - all 25 of them - discovered on the period since.

This is one of those books that is simply so interesting, so positively engaging that it's impossible to put down.

The history of science can be thrilling when done well, and in this brilliantly-researched volume, the author conveys the excitement of each newly discovered element with emotion and impact.

Why can't all science books be as good as this?!!
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Studying Chemistry in the mid fifties, many of the elements discussed in this book had not been written about and were just extra entries pencilled in on the periodic tables we used at that point. This left a gap in our knowledge that although filled in subsequent years was never discussed adequately . Eric Scerri has more than filled the gaps in that period of discovery, but his many references can be a little numerically overpowering in some parts of this book.
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