Theodore Gray – The Elements

Theodore GrayThe Elements: a visual exploration of every known atom in the universe

I guess it sounds kind of geeky to get excited by a book which seems as pure science as this. Okay, busted. It’s cool on several levels.

Firstly it devotes at least a double page spread to pretty much every element, with photos of examples from the author’s collection, and descriptions of their practical applications. Osmium? There’s a tiny piece at the end of a decent record player needle. Americium? Smoke detectors. Some of the elements don’t exist practically – with short half-lives they quickly break down into other elements (the geek in me loves that), so for some elements there are pictures of wonderful crystals which possibly have occasional atoms of the element (like the thorite possibly containing an atom of Francium). Some pages have no photo simply because there’s just none of the element around – those which have only really been created in minute quantities in laboratories, and do very quickly break down.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Gray is an excellent writer. For what could possibly be a very dry and academic listing, the book is filled with humour, self-deprecation and political insight. Many elements are toxic or radioactive and we’ve learned about them often through unfortunate results. While it might seem now obvious that repeatedly licking the tip of a brush used to paint radium on watch-faces, as people did in factories manufacturing the watches, it wasn’t so obvious then (early 1900s), and Gray relates the stories with gentle humour and grace. Gray’s way with words and laconic style makes this book more than interesting.

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