Review by Daniel Strain
Before phosphorus became a common ingredient in lightbulbs and bombs, early chemists isolated it from urine — at the time, an at-hand source of undiscovered chemicals. According to a recipe by English scientist Robert Hooke, it was best to start with 50 to 60 pails of the stuff.
Buckets of pee probably aren’t the first thing most people think of when they eye the periodic table, but such images seem to pop readily into Aldersey-Williams’ mind. This scientist-turned-writer dives into the discovery of many of the table’s now famous letters — P, S and O — and even some of the more obscure — Eu, Er and Yb. But he’s also interested in the cultural cachet of those elements. Phosphorus, for instance, went from a glowing, albeit stinky, symbol of scientific ingenuity to an ingredient in whit