One of the most enduring quotes in popular science is Carl Sagan’s ‘We are made of starstuff.’ It’s a beautiful sentence, highlighting the sheer sense of wonder contemplating the cosmos engenders. But the point Sagan was making was also a very scientific one: that every single element in all life on earth (or anywhere else, for that matter) originally came from the heart of a star.
It’s ideas like this that first grabbed my attention and steered me for a long while into the world of popular science. Carl Sagan was, of course, a master in this genre, but there have been several others who have shown how simply complex science can be explained without dumbing it down so much that it loses its significance. Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are all towering names in the scientific community, but they’re also stalwarts in the attempt to make science accessible.
Tim James’ Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything is one of the latest books to join this growing list of popular science successes. The fact that James is a secondary school teacher with a Master’s degree in chemistry, specializing in quantum mechanics, probably has a lot to do with how accessible he makes the subject.
Elemental is a rapid tutorial into how everything, everything, is chemical. Right from the petrol you fill in your car to the paper on which this is printed, and even to your very body, everything is made out of chemical particles. The story, like most good ones, begins at the very beginning of everything: the Big Bang. The universe exploded into existence and for a while remained white hot, the incandescent formative years when the basic building blocks of all existence were coming into being.
These building blocks began to coalesce together as the universe began to expand and cool, and eventually gave birth to the very first stars—which were nothing more than gigantic nuclear reactions where hydrogen atoms were forcibly combined into helium. As the chemical process went on, helium atoms were combined to form the next element on the periodic table, lithium, and then beryllium, and then boron and so on. At one point, the star would run out of fuel to burn and explode in a cataclysmic explosion called a supernova. These supernovae would spread heavier elements across the universe, which would then repeat the cycle of coalescence, burning, and exploding. And that is how almost every single element in the known universe came to be—from the nuclear reactions in the hearts of stars.
But this is just the beginning. James goes on to take the reader on a crash course of history that jumps backwards and forwards through time, peppering the unfolding story with great anecdotes of how man discovered the chemical elements. Anecdotes that, come to think of it, are key to understanding human nature. What better way to explain humanity’s destructive tendencies than to tell the story of how, when two scientists created the most flammable substance to ever exist—Chlorine Trifluoride—one of the first things people tried to do was to weaponize it.
Thankfully, the substance was so flammable that it set on fire even the glass jars meant to contain it and so it was quickly abandoned. Or, what better way to highlight humanity’s studious indifference in the face of being wrong than telling the story of how oxygen was named. The brilliant chemist Antoine Lavoisier in the late 1700s was so sure that he had identified the element responsible for the sour taste of acids that he named it ‘sour-maker’, which in Greek is oxys-genes, or oxygen in English. But oxygen was not the reason for the sour taste, as was later discovered. The name has been wrong for more than three centuries, but we’ve just stuck to it.
Of course, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had while reading about the crazy antics of scientists, and Elemental makes good use of it. Take the example of Hennig Brandt, a German experimenter and … innovator, for want of a better word. One night in 1669, Brandt was engaged in his favourite pastime of boiling his own pee (don’t ask why), when he saw that if he kept at it long enough, he was left with a thick red syrup and a black residue. Nothing if not persistent, Brandt proceeded to spend the night boiling this concoction as well, at which point it suddenly became a waxy solid that smelt strongly of garlic and started glowing blue-green. Brandt had discovered phosphorus by boiling his pee.
There’s a sense of achievement and an odd catharsis to reading about how generations of scientists slowly chipped away at the unknowable universe to finally arrive at the periodic table, one of the most important scientific creations ever. The fantastic thing about the periodic table is not simply how orderly it seems to be, but that it is incredibly robust. The shape of the table and the principles it is built on has allowed scientists to predict gaps in the table where so far undiscovered chemicals are to come. And sure enough, as and when modern scientists manage to create a new element, they fit right into the table, exactly where they were supposed to.
It’s not an easy task to make a seemingly dry subject like chemistry seem so action-packed and full of zest. It’s harder still to explain how chemistry intertwines with physics and biology. But the author does a great job of keeping it simple and never overwhelming the reader. The book is also peppered with diagrams that look like the author drew them by hand, which adds yet another fun element. Tim James’s middle-school teaching experience shines through in Elemental. His students are very lucky to have him.
TCA Sharad Raghavan, a journalist specializing in economic affairs, is currently working with The Hindu, Delhi.