- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (January 4, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 047144149X
- ISBN-13: 978-0471441496
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #852,554 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus 1st Edition
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From the Back Cover
This is popular science at its best, a great subject, unfolded with the skill of the storyteller; at once a mine of information and a thoroughly good read."
The Sunday Times (London)
"This well-written book is an examination of the very character of all chemicals."
The Sunday Telegraph (London)
Discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by nineteenth-century industrialists, and abused by twentieth-century combatants, phosphorus is one of natures deadliestand most fascinatingcreations. Now award-winning author John Emsley combines his gift for storytelling with his scientific expertise to present an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. From murders-by-phosphorus where the bodies glowed green, to the match factory strike that helped end child labor in England, to the irony of the World War II firebombing of Hamburg, to even deadlier compounds derived from phosphorus today, The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and curious, bizarre, and horrific events that comprise the surprising 300-year history of natures most nefarious element.
About the Author
JOHN EMSLEY is Science Writer in Residence at both Cambridge University and Imperial College of London University. He has won the prestigious Rhone-Poulenc Prize for best science book of the year, was an editor of New Scientist magazine, and wrote a science column for the Independent newspaper.
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This book was chock full of research. The book talks about how phosphorus was originally obtained through use of urine. It wasn't until the late 1800's that a process was found to abstract phosphorus from minerals. Phosphorus is a very important mineral for human beings. We need it for our bones, but as with most things in the body...it's moderation in all things. Too much of even a good thing is going to end up badly. This book covers all of the dangers of phosphorus, almost too much so. The research is phenomenal, as is the story...but there are some parts that were repetitive. I noticed several places where the author was repeating himself, maybe to draw attention to the facts...but it was too much. The book is quite long anyway, so there was no need to make it longer.
Of course, knowing man's propensity to use anything new they find for weapons, someone got the smart idea of using phosphorus in weapons. This is covered well in the book. The firebombing of Germany was enough to make me cringe. I hope people remember there were atrocities on both sides. I've read plenty on the wrongs of Germany during WWII but that particular chapter of war history on our part is horrendous.
Terrific book, very worth reading.
This book starts out interestingly enough. It recounts the early years after the discovery of phosphorus where the personalities of the pioneers of chemistry effect the progress of this element from the secretively made subject of parlor tricks (literally) to a mass produced necessity. It moves through the dark parts of the history as a weapon of murder both individually and for large groups. Finally, it recounts the redemption of phosphorus to its now required place in modern agriculture.
The history is amazing, the chemistry interesting (if you are into it); where this book fails (in my opinion) is its missed opportunities. The author spends pages talking about the structure of the phosphorus compounds, but when the opportunity comes to talk about the demonstrations during the 16 & 1700's that enthralled nobility throughout Europe it gets mere paragraphs. These stories could have served as a vehicle to talk about the properties of the element as they were first understood. Instead, they became a footnote. The author spent most of a chapter describing and debunking spontaneous human combustion (I think I counted four times he said it couldn't happen even as he described it happening) but ignored the effects of phosphorus based fertilizers drying as a combustible material on certain farmers clothing (again interesting stories left behind).
On the whole, not a book to be rejected out of hand, especially if you are interested in chemistry; however not a must-read (at least in the US release).
There are a number of elements that are extremely important to life, like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. But phosphorus is also essential to life and of all the elements essential to life, phosphorus is by FAR the most in danger of being depleted from the soils by growing crops for distant markets on the soils. For past civilizations this has usually meant that their fields have been depleted of phosphorus over time, and so their crops became more lacking in phosphorus and the crops do not grow well and are not healthy, and so the people who eat the crops become deficient in phosphorus, which is a very bad thing. So, with the advent of alchemystry and then modern chemistry the role of phosphorus in agriculture was discovered and ways were found to add phosphorus back into the soils and this has allowed modern civilizations to avoid at least one scourge that has afflicted most past civilizations (Egypt excepted as their soils were replenished by the annual Nile floods).
It is probably no stretch to say that without phosphorus fertilizers you would not be alive today reading this. That is how important phosphorus is to life and civilization. Phosphorus is a limiting element for life, the less phosphorus there is then the less life there is. That is why that, although the oceans cover 75% of the surface of the earth, the oceans are relatively sparsely populated by living species, the reason for that is that the oceans have very little available phosphorus.