Review 157: The Elements

The Elements by Theodore Gray

When I was a kid, my father had the entire Time/Life science series. For you young whippersnappers, Time/Life books were educational series that covered all kinds of topics – history, science, literature, you name it. The idea was that you sign up and they send you books, once a month, until the series was finished or you decided you no longer wanted to receive it.

The Science series focused on, of course, science, with books devoted to every facet of physics, medicine, chemistry, biology…. It was a fantastic compendium of human knowledge in those pre-internet days, and I just loved it. I learned about how traveling at lightspeed squashes things by reading a story about spies chasing each other on the Lightspeed Express. I learned about how different drugs affect the mind and body. I learned about how important the wheel was, what water could do, and how the food we eat determines almost everything about our lives.

My favorite volume of all of them was titled Matter, and it was about all the stuff there is. At the center of it was a pictorial representation of all the elements known to science in 1968. Everything from Hydrogen to Uranium and beyond. I could pore over those pages for hours, amazed by the idea that these things were all there was, made up everything around me. Learning that just six of them (Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorus) made up most of, well, me was just mind-bending.

I don’t know where that book is now – probably in a box at my mother’s house – but the effect that it had on me has lasted ever since my childhood. In fact, as I was researching this review, I found the place that sells coins stamped from elemental metals and got completely distracted by the struggle to not buy any of them. So that’s how Time/Life made me into a science nerd. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I saw this book, and had to snap it up as soon as I could. It cost a whole lot less than a 1/10 troy ounce Rhodium coin

Theodore Gray is an element hunter – something I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid. He has made a hobby of trying to collect samples of every element that is is possible to (legally) own, and he’s even built a special table to hold them all. A periodic table, as it were, which won him the IgNobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002. He and Nick Mann went through the collection to make outstanding, high-quality photographs and compile them into a fantastic book about “everything you can drop on your foot.”

My old chemistry teacher would have had these all over the classroom, I'm sure...

It starts, of course, with a basic rundown of what an element is – a substance made of only one type of atom – and what the Periodic Table is – an organization of the elements by their common properties. There’s also a page explaining the physics behind the shape of the table, what an “electron filling order” is, and why the atomic emission spectrum is so important. Fortunately for us non-professionals, he does this is a way that is amusing and understandable. Gray knows that his audience isn’t professional chemists or grad students – it’s people like me. People who are fans of science, but who, for one reason or another, never got into the real nitty-gritty of it. All of this means that it’s a book you can enjoy even if you remember nothing from high school chemistry other than “BIFF=WANG.” [1]

The book starts, of course, at hydrogen, the element that makes the sun burn (“Even at night,” alleges the author, but I’ll believe that when I see it) and ends with Ununoctium, which will no doubt get a proper name once those crazy kids in the high-energy physics lab get around to assembling it. It includes the spectre of the modern age, Uranium, and its evil twin Plutonium. There’s Carbon, without which none of us would be here, and Arsenic, which does a fine job of seeing to it that we cease to be. There’s Iron, which we use in abundance, and Dysprosium, which has almost no uses that you’ve ever heard of. Cesium tells us what time it is, and Krypton, which used to tell us how long things were (before we figured out the speed of light.) Strontium and Calcium, Sodium and Americium, Gold, Silver, Copper and Lead – every element is in here, waiting for you.

All the kids in the playground called me mad - MAD!!!

They’re accompanied by wonderful photographs that illustrate the applications of each element, as well as diagrams showing its emission spectrum, crystal structure, and other information that you may or may not be interested in. Regardless of how much you know about chemistry, you should find this to be a fascinating and enjoyable book. Moreover, if you have kids and you want them to be exposed to science in a way that engages their fascination and imagination, then this is the book for you. Just be ready to raise a science nerd, and if they ask for an elemental coin for their birthday, remember – Lead isn’t just for toys anymore!

“When you throw a large enough lump of sodium into a lake, the result is a huge explosion a few seconds later. Depending on whether you took the right precautions, this is either a thrilling and beautiful experience or the end of your life as you have known it when molten sodium sprays into your eyes, permanently blinding you. Chemistry is a bit like that: powerful enough to do great things in the world, but also dangerous enough to do terrible things just as easily. If you don’t respect it, chemistry bites.”
– Theodore Gray, The Elements

[1] Thanks, Mr. Hiza!

Theodore Gray on Wikipedia
Theodore Gray’s homepage
The Elements on


1 Comment

Filed under chemistry, nonfiction, science, Theodore Gray

One response to “Review 157: The Elements

  1. Pingback: Review 169: The Disappearing Spoon | The Labyrinth Library

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