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Book Review: The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray

Review by Janet Raloff

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A Popular Science columnist has transformed the prosaic periodic table into a drop-dead gorgeous coffee-table book. Each of the first 100 elements gets a stunning spread with a brief bio, including weight, density, uses, emission spectrum and crystal structure, when known. But such details don’t explain why readers will flip through this large-format book. It’s for the pictures.

Elements have two faces, Gray notes: as pure materials and in compounds. In this book he shows both, starting with a full-page image of an element’s pure form. Many appear as silvery bits or dazzling crystals. On the opposite page, Gray describes the element, and photographs depict its uses or compounds in which it’s found. Chlorine’s spread includes an antique vial of medicinal chlorine for inhaling, and sulfur’s presents a red onion with sulfurous scents. Less well-known is the promethium, atomic number 61, in the paint on an old compass.

Starting with protactinium — number 91 — depictions of uses tend to disappear, because there aren’t many. At mendelevium, number 101, Gray begins to group elements in sets of nine. Images in the first set depict for whom or for what the elements in that set have been named. Seaborgium, for example, was named for Glenn Seaborg, former board chairman of Science News publisher Society for Science & the Public. Gray ends with 110 to 118, some of which are unnamed. (He offers clever placeholder monikers.)

In all, this book offers a fun and glam homage to chemistry (and a bound-in periodic table poster — if only you have the heart to tear it out).

Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009, 240 p.,
$29.95.

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