Did you know that you can make your own sodium from seaweed? Or that the first transatlantic copper cable was laid in 1866 from Brunel’s steamship, the Great Eastern? Or that we used to be able to buy radioactive wool to knit baby clothes, which was deemed a good idea because it stayed warm and clean?
Well, me neither, although i am now a lot wiser thanks to a great new book by Hugh Aldersey-Williams called ‘Periodic Tables: the curious lives of the elements’ (Penguin 2012).
It’s a thoroughly engrossing book, nether textbook nor totally populist, slightly rambling, but informed and in depth at every stage and, in this case, each stage is a story: the story of one of the elements. From the discovery and exploitation of the radioactive metals, through the story of charcoal burners and carbon and in an exploration of how oxygen is one of the most destructive elements of all, the book ranges widely and freely between science, art, history and sociology.
Stories are magnetic: we get caught up in them, so a book of this sort, with each section dedicated to a different element, and each element differing wildly from the one before, is an easy read. You can just pick it up and follow one chapter whilst you drink your coffee or on a quick train journey. It’s also an easy read because, whilst a degree of knowledge about chemistry or physics may help, you don’t need a degree to read it. Every ‘fact’ that he makes is illustrated in simple terms. You can enjoy the story without being an expert, in more contemporary terms there is a very low barrier to entry!
In this instance, it’s clear that Aldersey-Williams is a chemist, a physicist and certainly a patron of the arts, although a lot of research has gone into this book. His interviews range from the son of the man who weaponised chlorine gas in the first world war, through to an artist who models a bomber out of lead. It’s this very conversational style, somewhat rambling, well researched and supported and, at every stage, deeply human, that makes the work so accessible.
What’s interesting is in the learning journey that he takes us on. It’s easy to make science boring. It’s a complicated subject. I have a degree in material science, but i’d still struggle to explain simple concepts like oxidation or reduction ten years later. I know broadly what it means, but the details of the science elude me. Aldersey-Williams does a great job of taking this higher level knowledge, not the details of exactly what ‘reduction’ means, but rather what it means in practical, applied terms. He tells stories that result from the chemical processes, as well as lurid and explosive stories about the chemical process, but rarely does he go into a scholarly discussion of what individual electrons are doing. Or is that protons? I forget.
What we can take from this is the way in which he tells compact stories with a high level of human interest, applied knowledge, for technical subjects. Typically we can end up focusing on knowledge, on facts and figures and, in today’s world that favours ‘just in time’, short learning solutions, this can make for dense reading.
Creating applied, engaging, energetic and fascinating stories is a great way of engaging learners and actually helping us to learn. Thinking about the types of stories that we tell and how we tell them is always a worthwhile activity.
You can read a much better review of the book here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/periodic-tales-by-hugh-alderseywilliamsbrthe-disappearing-spoon-by-sam-kean-2218085.html
And you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Periodic-Tales-Curious-Elements-ebook/dp/B004LLIHBI