Periodic Tales

Periodic Tales

Author: ChemViews

Periodic Tales – A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams presents an introduction to the elements of the periodic table, their properties, their history, and the stories that surround them.

Matthias Driess, Technical University of Berlin, Germany, reviews this book in Angewandte Chemie. He writes:

The periodic table of the elements has been an icon in chemistry since 1869. Anyone who is looking for striking tales and interpretations of the cultural significance of the elements would be enthusiastic about Periodic Tales and would find it hard to put down.

The elements do not belong in a laboratory; they are the property of us all. Periodic Tales is a record of the journey with the elements that I never encouraged to take when I was a chemist,” writes Aldersey-Williams in the introduction. With this start, the author presents an unorthodox and invigorating look at the elements in our cultural history and in many areas of everyday life. Aldersey-Williams takes the reader on a personal and emotional journey through the world of several elements along with their discoverers and discovery location.

The first of four chapters, “Power”, consists of short, informative episodes regarding the eminent roles of metals such as gold, platinum, palladium, iron, uranium, plutonium, and mercury. These, for example, stand for the manifestation of empires such as the Spanish colonial empire in the 15th century through gold and platinum, the development of technological advantage as in the case of the complex story of iron, and the race to develop the atomic bomb with the “Manhattan Project”.

The third chapter, “Craft”, makes clear that we would not have bells without tin and that silver led to photography, for example. We are confronted by the properties of metals such as zinc, aluminum, copper, titanium, tantalum, and niobium not only in architecture, art, and power lines, but also in medicine.

Matthias Driess concludes that this book is a joy to read because it encourages the curiosity, marvel, and communication of many discoveries, inventions, and lessons from the world of materials. The book can thus be wholeheartedly recommended to every scientist, cultural studies, interested laypersons, and in particular students of all disciplines.


  • Read the full book review at:
    Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2012, 51(5), 1104–1105.
    DOI: 10.1002/anie.201108295
  • Periodic Tales. A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc,
    H. Aldersey-Williams,
    HarperCollins, New York, USA, 2011.
    ISBN: 978-0061824722

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