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Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Viking, RRP£18.99, 424 pages

The periodic table of the elements developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev more than 100 years ago established order out of disarray. For the first time it was possible to categorise the elements, to understand how more than 100 very different substances could be constructed out of the same few elementary particles, and to group together those of similar chemical properties based on their atomic weights.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams employs the periodic table to impose some order on a potpourri of a book, a sort of travelogue of the elements in which science, art, history, reportage and personal memoir all play a part. In his acknowledgment, he thanks his publisher for commissioning “such a self-indulgent project” and self-indulgent it certainly is. This should not be taken too seriously as a criticism: Periodic Tales is great fun to read and an endless fund of unlikely and improbable anecdotes.

Who knew, for example, that the British general Wellington was known as the “Iron Duke” not for his prowess in battle but because he had installed iron shutters on the windows of his London home as protection against the mob? And how many would-be murderers, intent on using the element thallium to poison their victims, have been foiled by Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, where death by ingesting that metal is integral to the plot?

The author traces his fascination with the building blocks of the material world to his schooldays when he resolved to put together his own collection of elements, retrieving tungsten from dead light bulbs and mercury from run-down batteries – not something that one should try at home. A request to the US national laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to buy some plutonium 239 (“super weapons grade”) brought a speedy and negative response. (Thank goodness!) He retained his curiosity and willingness to experiment into adult life, and describes experiments to extract iodine from seaweed and phosphorus from urine.

Aldersey-Williams’ writing is wordy, loquacious, sometimes ill-disciplined and sometimes charming. But what saves Periodic Tales from being simply 400 pages of curious chemistry is the author’s sharp and often witty perspicacity. Mendeleev is often characterised as a mystic and prophet: “but this is more to do with his Siberian origins, his irascibility and his dishevelled beard than his professional record.” And the author is excellent on the way any new phenomenon can be seized on to promote sales – the men’s fragrance called Thallium, for example, or the raft of products named for the radioactive gas radium – radium butter, radium cigars, radium toothpaste. Ironically, returning via Eurostar from visiting the laboratory of radium discoverer Marie Curie in Paris a few years ago, he cleaned his shoes at his parents’ house and found among the polishes: “a rectangular carton of black leather dye branded ‘radium’ in bold 1960s lettering”. He should have added it to his collection; much safer than the real thing.

Alan Cane is an FT science writer

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