I’m personally a big fan of literature about the history of Chemistry, and today I came across two book reviews on the New Scientist website which might be of interest to any lovers of scientific history in general.
Firstly, A Tale of Seven Elements, by Eric Scerri and reviewed by Andrea Sella of University College London, tells the story of seven elements ‘missing’ from the periodic table in the 20th century: francium, astatine, promethium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium and protactinium. These elements aren’t widely known to the public at large, and so their history is usually forgotten.
People tend to forget how intensely scientists can battle to prove the discovery of a new element, and books such as these give us an interesting insight into what was going on in the midst of the chaos.
Andrea tells us that Scerri has ‘tremendous stories to tell’, and that he tells them well, albeit in a fashion that may leave the reader wanting to know more about the actual people involved. One aspect which may be of particular interest may be the letters between Lise Meitner (the discoverer of protactinium) and her research partner as he fought during the First World War.
Overall, Andrea reviews A Tale of Seven Elements as a ‘brilliant book’, which argues for curiosity-driven research, something which is seldom carried out today as a major push for applied and industrially-relevant chemistry appears to be taking place.
I always thoroughly enjoy learning about how an element was discovered, as I feel it takes us back to a more exciting time in science where curiosity and discovery drove researchers to carry out some amazing findings. Also, books such as these give a sense of what it’s really like to be on the verge of discovering something big, and the race to get there first, which is often missed in textbooks.
If you’d like to know more about this book, you can read Andrea’s review here.
Our second delve into scientific history is Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom: Niels Bohr’s 1913 Trilogy Revisited by Finn Aesrud and J. L. Heilbron, and reviewed by Philip Ball. This book tells the story of Neils Bohr, famous for his theory of the atom having a nucleus surrounded by moving electrons, from a very different perspective to what you might expect.
In the centenary year of the publication of ‘Bohr’s atom’, this book is perfectly timed, but Philip tells us it has the feeling of being ‘cobbled together’ for the occasion, hinting that it may have been rushed to completion.
The book offers us an insight into Neils Bohr’s personal life which hasn’t been seen before, including newly released correspondence with his wife. This adds a new level of depth to the background of a key player in the history of our knowledge of the atom and so the field of Chemistry. I find it’s always interesting to learn more about the person behind such influential discoveries. Sometimes we forget that behind the theories, syntheses, hypotheses and experimentation that we see in the news, in journals and in books are real people with real lives, and books like this help us to remember and enjoy that. Indeed, Philip describes the book’s telling of Bohr’s intellectual journey as ‘insightful and informative’.
The unusual aspect of the book is Heilbron’s attempts to link Bohr’s interest in literature with his science. This appears to be unsuccessful, particularly as Philip describes Heilbron as using quotes from Bohr’s literary loves to ‘punctuate the story of Bohr’s profession life’ with no proof that they had actually affected Bohr’s thinking in any way during those events. This is unfortunate, as other parts of the book held real appeal, and this attempt to provide a new edge to Bohr’s story seems to fall flat.
For those wanting know more about Bohr’s theory of the atom, or just want to see it in its original form, the book also contains the reprints of the three papers he published in 1913 outlining his work.
Overall, Philip was left with ‘mixed feelings’ about Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom: Niels Bohr’s 1913 Trilogy Revisited, having not enjoyed the tenuous suggestions that Bohr’s choice of literature influenced his work. In a powerful take-away message to his review, Philip states that ‘Whatever it is that makes truly noble, responsible – let alone successful – scientists, it isn’t great art.’
So, two books with very different subjects, but which each give us a journey through part of our chemical history. The journey human kind has gone through to arrive at the level of scientific knowledge that we have now is a complex and fascinating one, and these books offer us a fresh piece of that.
See what you think!