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Search For The Elements (Science & Discovery) Hardcover – January 21, 1962
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Isaac Asimov has this history and more in this brief, crisp, clear little book. He discusses the basic ideas of the Greeks (whose questions we are still trying to answer today); the theory of phlogiston (why it seemed to make sense at one time and how it later fell apart); and the development of the periodic table of the elements, with its numerous false starts and refinements.
There are a number of scientific giants who make their appearance: Thales, Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoissier, Humphry Davy, John Dalton, Dmitri Mendeleev, and the Curies. There are also a number of lesser-- but still important-- lights: Albertus Magnus, "Paracelcus," Joseph Black, Joseph Priestly, and the unfortunate Karl Wilhelm Scheele (whose discoveries kept getting published just a little too late). And there are even a certain number of colorful rascals and scoundrels such as Ramon Lully and Count Allesandro di Cagliostro.
Finally, Asimov presents a series of tables which list the elements discovered during certain periods of time. Of course, some "elements" turned out not to be elements at all. Other elements (gold, silver, mercury) were known to exist, but it wasn't certain whether they were elements or compounds. Some elements (like helium) were detected but were not officially recognized for many years. You can flip through these tables and get a quick picture of the discovery (first slow, then with incredible rapidity) of the basic building blocks of matter.
Martin Gardner rightly said that Isaac Asimov has given more people an education in science than twenty universities. This book is an excellent illustration of that point.