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Review - The Periodic Table - Eric R. Scerri

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The periodic table of the elements is one of the icons of science, but most of us have little idea how it came into being. It was down to Mendeleev, we know that, but pretty well anything else is vague. Eric Scerri sets out in this comprehensive book not just to fill in the gaps, but to make it clear that the periodic table is more than just a chemist's eye view into the physicist's model of the atom that determines how the different elements behave.

In the introduction, Scerri tells us this isn't a scholarly book - but that's certainly how it comes across. It really digs deep into the way the periodic table was developed (incrementally, by many people - anything but one of Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shifts). After the initial work based on chemical ideas, we see how quantum physics gave a better understanding of how the table works. But that isn't the end of the story, as Scerri shows very effectively that simply understanding atomic structure wasn't enough to build up the elements of chemistry (literally!) - it also takes an understanding of how the elements interact chemically. But unfortunately, though the detail is there, the book lacks the contextual information that would make it a good popular science title.

In part this is because Scerri hasn't pitched his writing for the general reader. A sentence like "This fourth number was due, according to Pauli, to a classically non-describable duplicity in the quantum theoretical properties of the optically active electron, a property now called spin angular momentum," could never appear in a popular science book. Frustratingly, the writing isn't all like this - some is very approachable - but there is enough heavy content to put off all but the enthusiast. And then there is just too much detail on the many, many versions of the table without filling in enough of the basic science, and giving us enough about the people and the situations in which the advances were made.

Given the level the writing is pitched at, and the content, it would make a great book for a chemistry undergraduate to supplement the very limited information in the usual textbooks, and should be hugely appreciated by someone doing a history and philosophy of science course - and if we were reviewing it as such it would get at least 4 stars - but this is a popular science website, and as such, this just isn't a book we can recommend.

Only in hardback.

Reviewed by Peter Spitz

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Last update 05 June 2007