Chemical lives

Hugh Aldersey-Williams cross-references art, literature, religion and politics to write a remarkable history of the table of elements in ‘Periodic Tales’

Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Penguin, RRP£9.99, 428 pages

A remarkable natural history of the periodic table, in which tales of discovery – through chance, hypothesis and speculation – are artfully studded with historical anecdotes.

Author Aldersey-Williams’s breadth of knowledge encompasses both ancient and modern, cross-referencing art, literature, religion and politics.

Anecdotes range from his own home-grown experiments to establish iron in the blood or extract the elusive glow of phosphorous from his own urine, to filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s use of the unusual properties of mercury to achieve cinematic sleight of hand.

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