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on 21 January 2014
Got this thinking it would give an overview of 7 elements and how they changed the world. However, it should be titled "Me, My Job in the Oil and Gas industry and How Good I Was Doing It.

Every few pages John reminds us that he worked for BP, and as far as iron and carbon are concerned, they only seem to have been used or produced in the oil and gas sector. I got bored at this point and decided to take a look at the pictures. On every page John is posing for the camera at meetings, seminars and other bewildering situations that bare no correlation to the title.

If you want a book about science that talks about the elements, spend your money on Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.
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The author John Browne, was the group chief executive of BP from 1995-2007 - as a result some of his observations really need to be taken with a pinch of salt. As such, he has met with and on occasion, done business with some rather disreputable leaders, Qadaffi, Putin & Blair to name a few.

He recaps the elements Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Uranium, Titanium and Silicon. Giving the history of their discovery, development, usage and the effect that they have had on the modern day world. I found this deeply interesting from a purely chemical element perspective as it really paints a much broader picture than a listing of statistics about each element. From the development of steel using iron, automobiles using petroleum to the conquistadors march across South America for gold - this book really has a broad sense of scale when it comes to the applications and effect of each element on the world. Especially when it is considered how broad the reach of a single element and its effect on the development of society can be.

What irked me at several points - something other reviews have already pointed out - is the slant of John Browne's experience, his description of the Exxon Valdez disaster for example is heavily mitigated by pointing out that there have been worse oil spills previously. He then proceeds to mawkishly lament the Macondo well disaster, all issues caused by the very company he was at the helm of. When referencing oil he talks about Tony Blair's foresight for action on climate change, lauding a man most consider amoral. Given that Tony Blair provides a cover reference for the book, this has to be considered in a different light.

Browne regularly demonstrates his opulent life-style; beginning a sentence with "In my library I have a book of very large engravings..." (p96.) and buying a 'poporos' (a pre-Colombian solid gold jar for mashing coca) and his house in Venice combined with his clearly jet-set lifestyle all breed an air of superciliousness. Whilst this is a minor point; it does detract from the scientific narrative of the book and its scope. Regardless, this book is a highly factual & well-referenced read that taught me a few things about the effect these elements have had on the shape of our world today. If you can see past the egotism, this is well worth a read.
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on 18 April 2014
This tries to be a scientific book but fails because of Brownes insistence on reminding us how rich he is (pad in Venice buys expensive works of art and books etc) and how well he did his job. What really niggles me in this type of book are the 'notes'. On the chapter about carbon there are 121 instances of those annoyingly small subscript numbers where to find out what he's talking about you have to go to the back, find the notes section, find the right chapter and then find the right note, then you can read the detail, why this detail cannot be included in the main text totally confuses me.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 May 2014
First things first: the author is a proper legend. Under his watch BP scooped up Amoco when oil was trading somewhere in the gutter and the Economist magazine was predicting cheap oil forever. It was a time when you had decide if you'd double up or cash out and he deserves a lot of the credit for BP doubling up at the lows. Also under his watch, BP managed the feat of being the only western oil company to take money out of Russia. Proper money, Like, they put in some 8 billion to buy half of TNK, took out something like 15 billion in dividends and cashed out for a similar amount. Also, he's the man who brought us "Beyond Petroleum."

But of course he will mainly be remembered for the scandal that brought him down, and from my angle it appears that writing books is basically what he's now doing to keep himself busy. But it's not exactly a passion. It never feels like he really had to write this book.

John Browne comes across like he's only ever had one passion: for business and for BP in particular. He was born into BP, he travelled the world as a youngster following his dad's various postings and after a brief interlude for college ended back at BP. At BP he drilled for oil, before moving on to running the show. When he got to the top he got to know about the rest of the world via his various board memberships and acquired the wealth that allowed him to indulge in his various hobbies (as opposed to passions)

The "Seven Elements that Have Changed the World" basically amounts to a list of the various things he found out by being such a successful and important person within such an important and powerful organisation. It could have been called "a bunch of interesting stuff I could not help finding out while I was running BP." Also, it's quite autobiographical. You do get to find out about John Browne, but he's never boasting, he just can't help telling you he was there and had his picture taken.

Finally, the book was useful to me because it settled a question that has bothered me for some time. John Browne states quite confidently that "peak oil" is not an issue. Not only are we sitting on the most reserves ever, not only are we well equipped to re-tap old oilfields, but in the words of Sheikh Yamani "the stone age did not end because we ran out of stone."

So this is not a book you must read. But if you're stuck on a plane, like I was last Tuesday, it's something you won't mind reading and while you're at it you'll pick up the odd statistic or anecdote you'll be able to repeat.
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on 2 January 2014
I did not like this book at all to be honest and apologies for the scathing review but I became very annoyed on reading this book.

I was hoping for a book that was going to be purely scientifically based, informative and help me to understand some of the processes better. It does include science within it contents but it's very heavy on the author's message and socio-economic drivel and corporate responsibility. It is his take on the world and he relates a lot of it back to his life and what he had done himself (He was the chairman of BP) which I did not find interesting. The feel of the book is one of an old, kind, man who naively believes that humans are good and that it will all be okay despite the fact that he partook in some of the most polluting industries known to man. There is mention of his philanthropy e.t.c. which makes the author seem like a cliche of a wealthy, privileged man deeming he is doing good deeds and probably making things worse. There is an assumed arrogance in that the author knows best.

I would say people interested in science are realists and I did not find this book or its message real at all. If this book was a president, it would be Ronald Reagan while he was trying to win office, selling dreams while Jimmy Carter saw tough times ahead and advocated caution. We all know who the electorate listened to.
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I found this book extremely informative and appreciate the title, but I had anticipated it to include more chemical facts than it did. It isn't really a science book and perhaps was never intended to be so but its title implies that it (probably) is.
Hence the lower grade...a misleading title, or at least, a title capable of misapprehension.
The book clearly is far more autographical and John Browne includes many personal references. As it happens I am rather pleased that I bought the book under a misapprehension because I learnt much non-scientific information regarding economics and finance. There are many references to history, say the life of Carnegie, the philanthropist, for example. The book can be read cover to cover or dipped into chapter by chapter.
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on 28 September 2013
A book that gives a insight into the evolution of manufacturing and the contribution made by these seven elements. Well written and easy to read, gives a insight into what has happened in the world I have grown up in.
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on 13 May 2013
Recommended reading for scientists, engineers and politicians. An argumentative exhortation to look after the planet and its resources, humans first.
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on 18 September 2013
If the essence of good science writing is capturing the human drama or the astonishing implications behind science's wider story, this book disappoints.

It is a pleasant enough ramble, perhaps,  from a fascinating man. But it is uneven, disorganized, and a bit random (how can you write a chapter about carbon and not mention plastics?) You also wonder what kind of editors they employ at Wiedenfeld and Nicholson these days. In one place a 'manager' is called a 'manger', and why didn't someone cough politely and stick a pencil through these value-adding insights: 

 '[carbon] appears in graphite, from which pencils are made, and in diamonds. It is used for jewellery and drill bits'  

'throughout the summer the historic walkways and squares [of Venice] are packed with tourists of all nationalities', 


'the automobile gives people the freedom to go where they want'.

I  have to mention the chapter on carbon, Browne's speciality. It drove me nuts. He writes of BP, which he led for a number of years, as if it were something that happened to him one hazy summer, long ago: oil wells explode, court battles rage, Angola fights itself to the death, fuelled by oil and diamonds: we could all have done better, he opines, to share oil's riches. We really tried in a small way to make funding a bit more open, so that's OK, isn't it?  John: you ran the company. You are a man of integrity. How do you deal really with this stuff? Tell me you don't just hide behind your collection of Venetian glass elephants, which get more of a mention than personal ethics.

Browne's concluding chapter is long on a call for government regulation, totally empty of a call for companies like BP to be ethical in themselves, without being prodded. Tony Blair endorsed the book, but instead of saying 'an expertly crafted book', which it isn't, he might have said, 'the chapter on carbon is a Blairite masterpiece: it avoids personal blame for anything.'

I have a feeling Lord Browne has a great book in him. I would love him to defend his years and actions as head of BP, with real passion and anger, against all those ranged against him, who would include Hugo Chavez, Russian oligarchs, Greenpeace, competitors, and shareholders like me who do not like greed and rapacity undertaken in my name. (We would prefer larger ethics and somewhat smaller dividends.) I would like him honestly to challenge any of us to do better than he did, in this murkiest of worlds. 

Rant over. Instead of something of a book with passion and insight, worth reading, He's sent us a middling and uneven piece of science writing. Proper science writers would breathe more life into the story, and mostly you'd buy better geo-political insight and analysis by simply subscribing to 'the Economist'. Worse still, he's written the wrong book. Pity.
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on 4 August 2013
I did enjoy Lord Browne's book, although my one disappointment is the section on Iron, perhaps due to my experience in the steel industry.

That apart it was first class and I would recommend it to others who had some sort of interest/qualification in science.
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