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Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements

4.7 out of 5 stars 46 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0198503408
ISBN-10: 0198503407
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Written by the author of The Elements (3d ed., Oxford, 1999), a data book on chemical elements created for scientists, this work is aimed at a general audience. All of the elements are covered, from actinium to zirconium to an element thought to exist but not yet synthesized (element 119). The alphabetically arranged entries range in length from two (Actinium) to nine pages (Hydrogen). Elements of atomic number 101 and above are discussed in a single entry for the transfermium elements.

Following brief information on the element's name and pronunciation, each entry is arranged into several sections addressing specific uses or roles. For example, "Food Element" treats the importance of the element in the human diet, and "Element of History" deals with the element's discovery. Also covered are medical, economic, environmental, and chemical aspects. There is even an "Element of Surprise," which highlights some interesting facts. Here and in occasional sidebars we learn that Mozart may have been accidentally poisoned by antimony, cobalt was once used to make invisible ink, silver can be used to sterilize water, mercury was once used to treat syphilis, and Napoleon may have been poisoned by arsenic from the wallpaper at his home on St. Helena.

There are many sources of accurate information on the chemical elements. A distinguishing feature of this work is the inclusion of unusual facts that should appeal to the general reader with little science background. It is recommended for special, public, and academic libraries. RBB
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"An astonishingly comprehensive survey of nature's fundamental ingredients.... By combining juicy anecdotes and fun with a wealth of up-to-date reference material, 'Nature's Building Blocks' hits the spot."--Malcolm Browne, New York Times

"A marvel--encyclopedic in scope, but so full of enthusiasm, so engagingly written, that one can open it at any point and read for sheer delight.... I have read and possess many books on the elements, but it is Dr. Emsley's new book which will now sit next to me on my desk."--Oliver Sacks

"An engaging gadgeteer of the elements."--George Johnson, New York Times

"A delightful, idiosyncratic survey of the known elements, this guide also includes many nuggets of surprising information--for example, the use of fluorine (found in our bones and teeth) in the development of the nonstick frying pan."--Natural History

"John Emsley's colorful account of all the elements in the universe is a succinct history of everything.... Emsley drew on 20 years of collected magazine and newspaper articles to produce this marvelous reference work. 'Nature's Building Blocks' is the kind of book people consult in the pursuit of a single fact, but this fact will lead to another and another, drawing the reader in an enjoyable chase from naturally occurring nuclear reactors to human zinc deficiency and on to the number of elements named for one small town in Sweden (four)."--New York Times Book Review


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (September 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198503407
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198503408
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.4 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,487,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Crocker on April 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
John Emsley writes excellent books on chemistry and Emsley's The Elements [3rd Edition] is an indispensable guide to the chemical elements for scientists. However, a layperson delving into The Elements may find it tough going because of its myriad numbers and tiny tidbits of text. In Nature's Building Blocks, Emsley dispenses with most of the numbers and expands the tidbits of text into page length essays on each element. Even though the book is clearly a reference book, the section on each element is an enjoyable read. Each section is divided into subsections that relate the element's significance to the cosmos, humans, food, medicine, history, war, economics, the environment, and then ends with a section called the Element of Suprise [one element's suprise is that there is nothing that Emsley could find to say about it that was suprising]. This book contains the kind of information I need as a chemistry and earth science teacher in a high school to spice up discussions on the elements. All laypeople with an interest in chemistry need a copy of this excellent book. Every high school library in the country should have a copy of this book on their shelves.
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Format: Hardcover
There's got to be a lot of folks out there like myself who at one point or another had some genuine interest in science as a topic but had that enthusiasm crushed by what passes for "science education" in our schools. Between nerdy and boring teachers in middle and high school and science texts whose only real point seems to be rendering the reading of statutory tax law or specifications for sewer pipe manufacturing seem exciting. People who were not necessarily destined to be scientists but who gladly would have dived into the subject had there been any incentive whatsoever to do so.
Well, you can dive in to Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley and plan to stay as long as you want. This is science presented with the flair and wit that, if more widely employed, would make studying science a lot more palatable to many students.
Emsley is a respected science text writer, so he knows the subject inside out. His aim here is to inform and entertain both. The elements appear alphabetically. Information encompasses the basics of the element's structure and abundance in the world, common uses, it's significance to human health and disease and the impact it has on our lives in general. There's a closing "Element of Surprise" that covey's an interesting fact about the substance.
The essays are long enough to be informative and short enough to keep attention from wandering. This is the sort of book you can either read right through or leave around and sample every now and then.
Overall, an excellent general guide and reference book students and their parent's can both enjoy and find useful.
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Format: Paperback
I was looking for a good book on the elements over the last few years and kept drawing a blank. The few I found were too technical, too simple, or involved strange treatments. Than I found this book! It was exactly what I wanted. A complete treatment of the elements of the periodic table alphabetically arranged. When I first found it I thought I would test it out by checking a rather obscure biological fact- certain tunicates (ascidians) concentrate vanadium in their blood. On p. 486 I found the reference with one error- Ascidia was called a "worm" (it is a Urochordate). However, the author made up for this by noting under copper that snails, spiders, octopi and oysters utilize that element as part of an oxygen-carrying blood pigment, making their blood pale blue.
Other entries were just as fascinating. The sections for each element cover such subjects as human involvement (biologically- including food and medicine), history, economics, environmental associations, chemical properties and "Element of Surprise" - little known facts regarding the element in question.
Where else could you find the origin of Teflon, the history of lead, the use of a salt of nitrogen to inflate airbags, or that thorium oxide was injected into patients during early X-ray diagnosis? These, and a host of other facts, are presented in exacting detail in "Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements."
This is a very much-needed book for anybody requiring a good reference on the chemical elements. It is also a very good read!
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Format: Hardcover
This book is as great as all the other reviewers say. It's the kind of book that's fun to explore -- each entry is self contained, and there are also a few short sections on the elements in general (for example, a history of the periodic table).
The only negative comment I have is the poor copy editing. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors. In the periodic table section alone, on one page, there were three spelling errors and three numerical errors. Needless to say, this is a especially problematic with a reference work...
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Format: Paperback
I enjoyed reading this book but I'm not going to repeat what others have already written and eulogize the book's organization and content. You can also "Look Inside" and get a pretty good idea of what the book has to offer.

My criticisms are as follows. As some reviewers have stated, the book needs an index. Much could be gained from being able to cross-reference names of elements and compounds. Since index-generating software has been around since the computer stone age, there is no good excuse for not providing one. The table of contents is also too pithy. There is a major section called "The Lanthanides" that isn't even in the table of contents. While it is true, that someone who reads the whole book will eventually stumble across it, it is also true that it isn't an element A-Z and someone who uses this book only as a reference may never discover it.

Another gripe is that while the section called "The Periodic Table" may be a fairly good historical discussion, it is a terrible technical discussion. It offers a disorganized and almost scatterbrained explanation of what a "group" or a "period" is. Readers may also want to know what a "transition element" is and why the lanthanides and actinides are in detached rows. And, why not have a section called "Actinides" since the astute reader may wonder why there is a Lanthanide section but not one for the Actinides? Emsley's discussion of orbitals is so poorly done and mostly confusing to the point that its very existence is irritating. A good discussion of orbitals should have been a core part of the book. Few readers will care about the history of the Periodic Table but a good discussion of orbitals is not easy to find--look elsewhere.
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