For professional reasons, I've been reading more fact-filled nonfiction than usual in recent months (and liking the excuse to do so, in part because it makes the fiction, when I turn back to it, that much more inviting), and one recent book that seemed like it would be both useful and fun was Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc (not to be confused with Sam Kean's similarly themed and even more hyperbolically subtitled recent bestseller, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements). It turned out to both more useful and more fun than I expected.
Aldersey-Williams is a journalist and an amateur chemist of long standing, and he wanted to write a book that would give the elements--the building blocks so often taken for granted--the stories that show the drama of their discovery and remind us how individually embedded they are in our culture. And so he makes a curious, meandering tour of nearly all of them, organized by theme rather than atomic number. The book is full of chemistry, but in an old-fashioned way, almost none of it breaking the wall of the molecule. I had just read the more technical Cartoon Guide to Chemistry--also recommended!--and they turned out to be ideal complements, with Periodic Tales mentioning none of the electron-shell math and ionic-bonding equations you'd be tested on in a chem class.
Instead, it follows the physical (and often emotional) manifestations of those atomic identities, with a gratifyingly wide-ranging frame of reference, from opera to war to ancient history, as well as the history of science, pseudoscience, and the periodic table itself, and of the men and women whose discoveries have filled its empty squares. His intellectual wanderings are nearly Sebaldian, an effect heightened when you realize he lives in Norwich, in Sebald's adopted home territory of East Anglia, which he wandered through himself in The Rings of Saturn. Certainly his use of photographs, embedded in the text without captions, has some of the off-handed archival feel that makes them so evocative in Sebald's books. If Aldersey-Williams's tightrope walks across history and personal narrative never reach the vertiginous heights of Sebald's (they don't really attempt to), there is one section in particular that is straight out of the Sebald playbook, where he connects the first apparent isolation of elemental phosphorus (from an alchemist's urine!) in Hamburg with the Allied phosphorus bombing of the same city three centuries later.
In keeping with this closer, personalized acquaintance with the individual elements, the pleasures of the book are anecdotal rather than systematic, and so I was inspired for the latest Firmament to choose ten of my favorite stray facts from his stories, some directly concerning the elements, some only indirectly, and some just caught along the way and passed along, one feels, only for the irresistable joy of passing them along. Many of them have the polished feel of a narrative gem that has been through the tumbler a few times before, but with a couple of exceptions they were new to me in his telling and I hope some are to you too.
- At the turn of the last century, having met on their families' neighboring dachas, the Russian poet Alexander Blok married Liubov' Dmitrievna Mendeleeva, the daughter of the mastermind of the periodic table, Dmitrii Mendeleev (he dedicated his famous Verses About the Beautiful Lady to her). All seemed to go well at first between son- and father-in-law: Blok professed a great admiration for the scientist before and after his death a few years later. But then in 1919, swept up in the Revolution, he turned on his influence with a surprising violence either Oedipally or politically inspired, as quoted in his diary: "Symbolic action: on the Soviet New Year I smashed Mendeleev's desk." (Shades of the not-just-symbolic action of a previous revolution over a century before, when the great chemist Lavoisier was guillotined by the Jacobins.)
- Having quoted Nabokov as having "caught some very good moths at the neon lights of a gas station between Dallas and Fort Worth," Aldersey-Williams notes with glee the presence of the element's name in a new butterfly species the author/lepidopterist christened on the same road trip, Neonympha dorothea. What I find more amusing, and more Nabokovian, is that he apparently named the species after "the student who was doing the driving," no doubt a neonymph of some sort herself.
- In a footnote, we learn that De Re Metallica, the 16th-century "metallurgical masterpiece" (that sounds more like an LP I might have bought at Kemp Mill Records in 1983), was not translated into English until 1912. The translators? Young mining engineer Herbert Hoover and his wife, Latin scholar (and future First Lady) Lou Henry Hoover.
- I had heard the term "shot tower" without ever giving it much thought, but if I had associated it with gunshot, I probably assumed the shots went up, not down. I'm sure it's basic weapons history but I was unaware that through the 19th century musket and rifle balls were manufactured by dropping bits of molten lead in a tower a dozen or more stories high. On the way down, the lead would cool and solidify into a near sphere by the time it splashed into water at the bottom. Once again it is confirmed that people make up crazy stuff to get what they want.
- Speaking of metal falling from the sky, for milennia people recognized the particular value, for weaponry and other uses, of pure iron. But until they discovered how to smelt iron from ores in the ground, the only pure iron available for forging was that which had fallen from space, in meteorites. What is amazing to me is that there were enough meteorites just hanging around to be found and melted that ancient peoples across the globe could have put it to use.
- Frank Capra's 1931 film Platinum Blonde, which made Jean Harlow a star and her hairdo a fad, was originally going to be called Gallagher, after the name of Harlow's rival in the picture, played by Loretta Young, who ends up getting the man. Hard to imagine the movie having the same cultural impact under the original title, but maybe the '30s were spared a fad of, that's right, guys smashing watermelons with sledgehammers.
- Hubcaps are known as "enjoliveurs" in French, or, in Aldersey-Williams's translation, "prettifiers."
- I've heard this quote before (in Richard Holmes's Age of Wonder) and no doubt it's a familiar Romantic-poetry chestnut, but it's too good not to appreciate again: Coleridge said that he attended the lectures of Humphry Davy--the multitalented chemist (and sometime poet) who, among other things, first isolated a handful of our most useful elements such as sodium, potassium, and calcium--in order to "increase my stock of metaphors." Sounds like the sort of thing Updike might have said, in a somehow more self-deprecating and yet more self-satisfied way.
- The other story I'd heard before is a little less highbrow: when Glenn Seaborg and his Manhattan Project colleagues isolated a new, radioactive element with atomic number 94 in the lab for the first time, they called it plutonium (since 92 was uranium and 93 was neptunium). But they broke with tradition in choosing its chemical symbol, ignoring the standard "Pl" in favor of the sophomoric joke of "Pu" (a gag chemists of previous generations must have missed when abbreviating sulfur).
- Mendeleev, aside from his lifelong passion for putting nature in boxes, had the odd hobby of constructing leather suitcases: "His apartment was cluttered with cases in varying states of completion, as well as the leather and buckles and tools used to make them." In telling this anecdote, Aldersey-Williams explicitly declines to extend this obsession into the obvious metaphor (thereby revealing himself as not that Sebaldian after all, perhaps). But to extend it further beyond the simple boxing up of life, I found that image of a scientist's apartment filled with unfinished suitcases somehow poignantly evocative of the century to follow: of intellectuals packed off to Siberia by Stalin, of Jewish physicists like Lise Meitner and Albert Einstein (both of whom who, like Mendeleev, would have manmade elements named after them) driven into exile by the Nazis, and even, stretching it further, the suitcase nukes that are one of the bogeymen of modern nuclear terrorism, unleashed by our investigations into the atom.