Friday, October 05, 2012

Strange New Book about the Periodic Table

As a blogger of influence™ I occasionally get books in the mail to review. The latest is Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified, by Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji.

This has got to be the strangest book I have ever read about the periodic table. Each chemical element is interpreted as a cartoon figure. (I think they're all male, but I'm not absolutely sure. Are there really no female elements?) The noble gases, for example, all have giant hairdos that the author calls an "Afro", but look closer to a shtreimel; the halogens, by contrast, are all "bald and bulbous like a halogen lamp". The elements of antiquity have long beards, and the man-made elements look like robots. A fold-out periodic table summarizes all 118 known elements with their cartoon interpretations.

The book begins with a discussion of elements found in everyday things and how this has changed through time. The next chapter explains the author's coding for the various properties of the elements (interpreted as hairstyle, clothing, obesity, etc.) The bulk of the book goes through each element and discusses their properties and applications.

Most of the facts presented are correct, but not always. For example, about neon lights in glass tubes it is claimed that "The first time this was done was in 1912 in Montmartre, Paris", but this is not quite correct. The property of emitting red light by electrical discharge was noted by the discoverers of neon, Travers and Ramsay in 1898, and commercialization started in the early 1900's. The lanthanides are described as "extremely rare", but this is not really the case. Cerium, for example, is more abundant in the earth's crust than copper, lithium, cobalt, and lead.

The author is also not always careful to distinguish between the pure element and its compounds. Hopefully no child will swallow aluminum foil upon reading that "It has protective properties when applied to stomach membranes".

This little (15 × 18 cm) book might possibly interest youngsters (ages 8-12), especially if they already have an interest in Japanese anime. But for older kids and adults, I think they'd be better served by Emsley's Nature's Building Blocks or Stwertka's A Guide to the Elements.

Rating: two stars out of four.


Michael J. Swart said...

Based on the few pages available in the Amazon preview, it might not warn against aluminum foil eating, but at least it warns against breathing pure Helium!

I have no problem with a book aimed at different age groups (intentional or not) and the strangeness might hold someone's attention a little longer than it would otherwise.

It's still probably a pass for me.

Anonymous said...

It's Japan. As in, the country of Shinto-ism. This is just Shinto set in the 21st century.

Gerry said...

I have fond memories of Asimov's Building Blocks of the Universe. Probably a bit out-of-date, now.