A Tale of Seven Elements

Eric Scerri's book tells the story of filling in the periodic table of the elements

The periodic table, which arranges elements based on chemical behavior and physical properties, is a triumph of science. Yet the first table, developed in the late 1860s, was riddled with gaps created by undiscovered elements.

By the time researchers recognized in 1913 that elements should be arranged by atomic number (the number of protons in their nuclei) rather than by atomic weight, only seven gaps remained in the list of naturally occurring elements. Chapter by chapter and element by element, Scerri, a historian of science, chronicles scientists’ efforts to fill those holes. A bonus chapter covers elements above uranium, created in laboratories.

Five of the seven natural elements were missing largely because they are incredibly radioactive and thus short-lived. Two — francium (element 87) and astatine (85) — are so rare that Earth’s entire crust is thought to contain no more than 30 grams, or about the weight of a paper clip, of each element at any one time.

More than a description of seven rare elements,  the book also recounts the pivotal experiments and false starts that preceded each discovery. Scerri’s Tale gives an absorbing account of scientific process in the early 20th century, when nationalism drove chemists and physicists to seek the glory that would result from discovering a new element.

While a few of these scientists later claimed Nobel prizes or appeared on postage stamps, one gained what may be the ultimate chemical accolade: Austrian physicist Lise Meitner had element 109, meitnerium, named in her honor.

Oxford Univ., 2013, 304 p., $19.95

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