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Periodic Tales Hardcover – March 29, 2011

121 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[A] virtuoso tour of the periodic table.” (Publishers Weekly)

“[C]harming. . . . Aldersey-Williams writes with simplicity and elegance. The stories may not help you on your next chemistry test, but they’ll help you appreciate the building blocks that are all around us yet all too easy to overlook.” (Associated Press)

“A lucid, enjoyable collection . . . that, element by element, demystifies the iconic periodic table.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Aldersey-Williams’s playful, hands-on approach to scientific exploration shines through the book.” (Boston Globe)

For the UK edition: “[F]ascinating and beautiful. . . . If only chemistry had been like this at school. . . . [A] rich compilation of delicious tales.” (Matt Ridley, Prospect magazine)

From the Back Cover

Like the alphabet, the calendar, or the zodiac, the periodic table of the chemical elements has a permanent place in our imagination. But aside from the handful of common ones (iron, carbon, copper, gold), the elements themselves remain wrapped in mystery. We do not know what most of them look like, how they exist in nature, how they got their names, or of what use they are to us. Welcome to a dazzling tour through history and literature, science and art. In Periodic Tales, you'll meet iron that rains from the heavens and neon as it lights its way to vice. You'll learn how lead can tell your future and why zinc may one day line your coffin. You'll discover what connects the bones in your body with the White House in Washington, the glow of a streetlight with the salt on your dinner table.

From ancient civilizations to contemporary couture, from the oxygen of publicity to the phosphorous in your pee, the elements are near and far and all around us. Unlocking their astonishing secrets and colorful pasts, Periodic Tales is a passionate journey through mines and artists' studios, to factories and cathedrals, into the woods and to the sea to discover the true stories of these fascinating but mysterious building blocks of the universe.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (March 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061824720
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061824722
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #398,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

76 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Sujit Pal on May 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book because I thought it would be a great way for my middle schooler to get to know his periodic table in a way I never did. I figured that knowing the back stories behind the elements may help make them more interesting, and also help to relate an element with others in the same class in the periodic table. This book does not disappoint - the writing is engaging and reads like a series of little detective stories. A middle schooler will probably miss the references to classical literature in the stories, though.

It also helps to have a copy of the periodic table handy and refer to it from time to time as one progresses through the book.
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Format: Hardcover
A whimsical account of several of the elements in the periodic table. We get some social culture and some history of science. What makes this a pretty charming book is its style of writing. It is written in a personal and very readable way. It is not at all encyclopaedic so don't expect too much if you're looking for something serious. This is a great read on a long-haul fight or when you just want to kill some time and don't mind picking up some marginal knowledge along the way. You don't need any chemistry knowledge to enjoy this book. The book is hardcover, but is printed on low quality paperback paper, so it probably makes good sense to wait for the pocket edition. For the content of the book I would rate it four stars.

UPDATE: A more visual approach is found in The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. That is more a coffee table book and it is fun to read a section here and there. However, it does not have that much text so it is more of picture book suitable both for odler children and adults. Of course you do not get an understanding of chemistry by reading any of these books. Still fun knowledge if you are that kind of person.
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42 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Linda M. Abrams on May 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Never thought much about the periodic table except dull dull, dull. This book is so interesting. Each element is looked at historically and how they have affected us. I love it. You can pick out a section and read it, and leave it alone until you want to read another section. But I can't stop!
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By hrladyship on October 28, 2012
Format: Paperback
I have to admit that I was curious when I saw the title Periodic Tales. Did it have anything to do with the periodic tables of elements? If so, why tales? (I had to assume it wasn't just a typo.) The title also attracted me because of a newfound interest in the natural sciences, something I never took in school unless I had to, and which I rarely understood. And, the cover blurb on the back of the book sounded interesting.

After buying the book, I read reviews of it on and and feared I might have made a mistake. Some of those who had read it found it uninteresting and a bit self-serving. Others wrote good reviews. The mixture of opinions gave me pause, but I'd already bought the book, so I might as well take the plunge.

I was immediately drawn into the stories of the discoveries, the insight, the pure luck in some cases. Did you know that Sweden is the site of the largest number of discoveries of metals in the world? Or that Marie Curie carried a bit of radium around in her pocket? The historical and biographical information is interesting. The differences in methods and sources, the reactions of new elements, especially in the atomic age.

One of the more interesting views of the elements described here is how so many are perceived by the public, artists, professionals, and others. Some are described as being either male or female, good or rich or bad. Silver is female, represents good, while gold is male and rich. Aluminum (aluminium in most of the world) was seen as flashy and modern, but its image has faded, if not its gleam. Chromium adorned automobiles and was considered to be a fancy ideal.

The author visited many of the sites of discovery or the mining areas.
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61 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Lucas VINE VOICE on July 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Reading Mr. Aldersey-Williams' collection of periodic tales leads you to one inescapable conclusion: some elements of the periodic table are more culturally interesting than others. From the author's point of view, this may be because an element's cultural significance increases with the amount of time we've pounded, polished, or manipulated it. This theory is sensible enough; after all, the most culturally significant elements in this book are gold, iron, silver, lead, tin, and copper. Add to them the radioactive elements--those that opened a new frontier for science, a new dread for mankind--and you have a sturdy bundle of literary alloys that form the book's backbone.

Moving out from these, Mr. Aldersey-Williams goes on to fashion many more alloys you hope will be as culturally dense as the others. Many are not. In fact, some are hardly alloys at all, but merely more than stories of their discoveries. Others, examples of elements the author found in a forgotten cupboard. Still more, like those rare earth metals lingering all about the Nordic landscape, leave you appreciative for the author's excursion but questioning their relevance to his overall scheme.

If there is a scheme, that is. It can be hard to track. The result: you're not sure whether you're reading a high tech scavenger hunt, a nostalgic tale of the author's childhood, or a true cultural odyssey.
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