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The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction Paperback – January 13, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0199582495 ISBN-10: 0199582491 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews


"Entertainingly historical and touches on quite large themes like the nature of the scientific method...Overall this stylish and snappy book will entertain and enlighten you, and its convenient size means it can do so while you're on the go." -- Chemistry World

"Although entitled A Very Short Introduction, this book of 140 or so pages still manages to pack in a substantial amount of information. Usefully proportioned, so as to fit neatly in my raincoat pocket, I found that during spells waiting to catch a train, I could learn an awful lot from it." -- Josh Howgego, Royal Society of Chemisty

"The reader will have a good understanding of the main features of the periodic table's development, and will certainly be left with the impression that the story of the table has by no means ended." - Peter Hodder, HodderBalog Social and Scientific Research, Wellington, New Zealand

"I especially was fascinated by the discussion of the many alternative forms of the periodic table -- ranging from trees to spirals -- both from a scientific and philosophical point of view. By the telling the multi-faceted story of the periodic table, the reader gains an appreciation for the scientific method and for how science is really done." -- The Guardian

"The author's personal enthusiasm for the subject and his wide ranging historical and philosophical perspectives are clear in the text and add greatly to the appeal of this book. This book should be on the reading list for all chemists." -- Alan Goodwin, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, Journal of Science Education

Outstanding Academic Title by Choice Library Review

"Despite its pocket size, this brief book offers rich, fascinating historical accounts of the scientific achievements associated with the periodic table...Highly recommended. All levels/libraries." -- M. W. Han, Columbus State Community College, Choice

"Scerri's writing is lively, engaging, and accessible. Although written for a general audience ... The Periodic Table, A Very Short Introduction is recommended as a supplementary text for high school chemistry courses, introductory chemistry course for undergraduates, and courses in the history and philosophy of science." --Journal of Chemical Education

"I am pleased to recommend highly Scerri's contribution to the [Very Short Introductions] series, which would make an ideal modestly priced gift to anyone interested in the 'central icon' of the 'central science,' especially students and young persons in general." --Foundations of Chemistry

From the Author

In writing this book I took the opportunity to update and correct many points from my earlier more in-depth book on the periodic table.  That book has been reviewed in about 60 journals in chemistry, history of science, philosophy of science and science education.  It is a privilege to be invited to write for the Oxford VSI or "Very Short Introduction" Series and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.  I could not have asked for better support from the people at Oxford University Press.

One whole area that was not mentioned very much in the first book was the synthesis of elements beyond element 92.  There is an entire chapter devoted to this topic in my VSI on the periodic table.  There is also an extended discussion of alternative forms of the periodic table, from a scientific and philosophical point of view.

Eric Scerri

Please visit my new website at
for more information about my work, the periodic table and the elements.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (January 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199582491
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199582495
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 0.4 x 4.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am originally from Malta and was educated in England at the Universities of London, Southampton and Cambridge. I wrote a PhD on the relationship between chemistry and quantum mechanics at King's College, London in 1992 and have continued to carry out research on this topic. I am currently in my twelvth year in the Chemistry Department at UCLA where I teach large general chemistry classes as well as courses in History and Philosophy of Science. After publishing over 100 research articles I decided to try to reach a wider audience by writing a book on the periodic table of the elements which has been an interest of mine since my days as a chemistry high school student in London. I was recently awarded the Herbert Newby McCoy award by the Chemistry Department at UCLA. This is the major faculty award for the most significant contribution to the science of chemistry. My is being received exceptionally well and I have had many invitations to speak both in the US and abroad. I wrote the book because there is simply no up-to-date and comprehensive account of the evolution and significasnce of the periodic system in relationship to quantum physics. Oliver Sacks has written "Its a gorgeous book. I keep it by my bedside and stayed up all night reading it". The author of the only previous comprehensive treatment of the periodic table, Jan van Spronsen writes on the back cover that the book represents a worthy successor to his own book. It is written at a general accessible level, while still aiming to appeal to the experts in chemistry, physics, history of science, philosophy of science and science education. I would be delighted to hear from readers who might have comments or questions on the material that I discuss. Eric Scerri

Please see my website at

Customer Reviews

The book is also very well written, and it is a pleasure to read.
Dr. Bojan Tunguz
So far I'm about ½ way through and am enjoying it and learning from it.
The periodic table of the elements is one of the icons of science.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Bojan Tunguz HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on February 15, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Periodic table of elements is one of the most famous and recognizable scientific icons. It is a distillation of many centuries of work and insight into the nature of fundamental substances, and it is a particularly elegant formulation of the deep unity of all matter. Its discovery has been rightly attributed to Mendeleev, perhaps the greatest Russian scientist of all time, although many of its essential features have already been anticipated in the years preceding its official discovery. Even after the discovery, the periodic table has continued to evolve, both in terms of the new elements that have been discovered, as well as in terms of how they are best visually included in the table.

This very short introduction tells the story of discovery of the periodic table. It is in equal measure a historical account as well as an introduction into the scientific principles that have been crucial for our understanding of the elements. It also reflects on important philosophical issues that most active scientist often don't appreciate enough, but that are in fact important in deciding what are the crucial features of the laws and relationships that the periodic table embodies.

This book is bound to offer a lot of new and interesting information, even to those who think that they know pretty much everything that there is to know about the atomic structure and the elements. (As a physicist, I was surprised to find out that we still don't have a completely quantum mechanical understanding of the orbitals, and the fact that relativistic effects become important for the heavier atoms.) It is an up to date account, and anyone who is curious about the basic science will greatly appreciate its content. The book is also very well written, and it is a pleasure to read. I highly recommend it.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim on April 17, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Dr. Scerri's book is, to a great extent, about what most of us glossed over when we studied Chemistry in college.

I read the introductory portions of chapters in Chemistry books that covered the history and philosophy pertaining to what the chapter was about when I studied Chemistry in college but I only read those portions once. I read the parts of the chapters that were being tested on over and over again of course.

Now that I'm not striving for good grades in Chemistry the history and philosophy of the periodic table is something I find to be profound, true, and beautiful.

This Short Introduction is a beautifully written book that explains how and why the periodic table was discovered. The discovery process turns out to be a good read. I can't get over the fact that Mendeleev, the Russian genius who was most instrumental in discovering the periodic table, didn't believe in the existence of atoms!!

My only warning involves the need to have studied a bit of Chemistry to understand the book. I'm fairly certain that rudimentary knowledge of Chemistry is assumed as the basis for the book.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Pletko on April 7, 2012
Format: Paperback

"The periodic table ranks as one of the most fruitful and unifying ideas in the whole of modern science, comparable perhaps with [Charles] Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. After evolving for nearly 150 years through the work of numerous individuals, the periodic table remains at the heart of the study of chemistry.

This is mainly because it is of immense practical benefit for making predictions about all manner of chemical and physical properties of the elements and possibilities for bond formation.

Instead of having to learn the properties of the 100 or more elements, the modern chemist, or the student of chemistry, can make effective predictions from knowing the properties of typical members of each of the eight main groups [or columns of elements] and those of the transition metals and rare earth elements [all found neatly arranged on the periodic table]."

The above extract comes from this slim book by Dr. Eric Scerri. Scerri is a chemist and a leading science philosopher specializing in the history and philosophy of the periodic table. He is presently a lecturer with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA. (He's also a musician who plays one mean electric guitar as well as the acoustic piano.)

This book is part of the "Very Short Introductions" series (which began in 1995) that are books for anyone wanting a "stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject."

A modern definition of the periodic table might be an arrangement of the chemical elements according to their atomic numbers (the number of protons in the nucleus of an element's atom) to exhibit the periodic law (principle that the properties of the chemical elements recur at regular intervals).
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The last time I gave any focused attention to the periodic table was in high school chemistry, back in 1966. I vaguely remembered it as an aesthetically pleasing intellectual construct, so when I stumbled across this installment in Oxford University Press's "A Very Short Introduction" series, I decided to revisit it. I am glad I did.

Eric Scerri lectures in chemistry and the history and philosophy of science at UCLA. For a writer on scientific matters, he writes well and lucidly. The organization of THE PERIODIC TABLE is indicated by its chapters:
1. The elements
2. A quick overview of the modern periodic table
3. Atomic weight, triads, and Prout
4. Steps towards the periodic table
5. The Russian genius -- Mendeleev
6. Physics invades the periodic table
7. Electronic structure
8. Quantum mechanics
9. Modern alchemy: from missing elements to synthetic elements
10. Forms of the periodic table

Thus, the overall approach is an historical one -- from concepts involved in the periodic system, to precursors of the table, to the discovery of the periodic system by Mendeleev, to the prediction of new elements and the filling in of gaps in the periodic table, to the synthesis of elements beyond uranium, to contemporary alternative forms of the periodic table.

I don't remember Mendeleev from my high school chemistry class. Yet Scerri writes that "the name of Mendeleev is inextricably linked with the periodic table in much the same way that evolution by natural selection and relativity theory are linked with Darwin and Einstein respectively." Could it be that my high school chemistry course ignored Mendeleev because we were then near the height of the Cold War?
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