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The interesting version of the history of the Periodic Table and the discovery of 7 elements
on 24 August 2015
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.