Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Ingredients

The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements
© Phillip Ball 2002
216 pages

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium [...]
(Tom Lehrer, "The Elements").

Chemistry is not an arcane subject solely practiced in a lab with flasks of mysterious looking fluids. It is nothing less than the study of what everything is made of, and how the elements work together. In The Ingredients, Nature editor Phillip Ball introduces readers to the human story of chemistry -- its history, importance, and some fundamental concepts.

The title is partially misleading;  Ball's work isn't a comprehensive catalogue of the elements, but an introduction to appreciating the field. He begins with the Greeks,, then uses the discovery of oxygen to cover the birth of modern chemistry. A following chapter on gold illustrates the fact that attempts at chemistry have been  pervasive throughout human history. Subsequent chapters introduce the periodic table, and thus our modern understanding of chemistry, and establishes its basis in physics by examining the basic parts and how they came to be discovered. "The Chemical Brothers" covers isotopes -- different 'flavors' of particular elements, like Carbon-14 and Uranium-236 -- which have practical uses, from dating to nuclear energy.  The final section ("For All Practical Purposes") examines the role of various sundry elements, many of which are not commonly known by the public, as parts of products we use every day.  Ball accomplishes the same thing here that Spangenburg and Moser did in their "On the Shoulders of Giants" series: he imparts to the reader an understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry and the personalities that shaped it, while never coming off like a lecturer.  The result is a breezily fun but thorough grounding in the subject, and one worth your while in the interests of general scientific literacy.

[...] these are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered!
(Tom Lehrer, "The Elements")


  1. Have you read his book 'Critical Mass'...? It's a really interesting look at understanding human behaviour through methods more akin to chemistry and physics. It actually made traffic flow analysis sound fascinating!

  2. I haven't, but it does sound fascinating! I just noticed this book a few weeks back and decided to give it a go. I'll have to look into Critical Mass. :)

  3. I have two others of his in 'The Pile', on Paracelsus called "The Devils Doctor" and one called "Unnatural - The heretical Idea of Making People".

    I really must get around to reading them one day... [grin]