Why are the 92 natural chemical elements not more iconic? The Periodic Table, which graphically illustrates their relationships, has a certain cachet and hangs on many walls; Tom Lehrer wrote a song, "The Elements", which demonstrates that the names scan well. It is, though, all a tad superficial. Dr Johnson sternly put his finger on the problem: "The truth is that the knowledge of external nature and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or frequent business of the human mind... we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance". It's a devastating put-down and one every would-be science populariser should bear in mind.
Pace Johnson, the fact that everything that exists is made of less than 100 elements ought to be of general interest. There have been many attempts to find the elixir for publishing gold with a popular account, the prima materia being John Emsley's Nature's Building Blocks: all the elements in alphabetical order described in full chemical, physical and cultural glory.
Peter Atkins in The Periodic Kingdom tried to create a sense of a chemical landscape but, as an admittedly "austere navigation chart of chemistry", its appeal is self-limiting. Oliver Sacks's Uncle Tungsten is an autobiography of a childhood in which chemistry loomed very large. And, of course, there is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, a special case of which more later.
In these books, Hugh Aldersey-Williams and Sam Kean bind themselves to no conceptual straitjackets. Aldersey-Williams is occasionally autobiographical, but most of the time both cherry-pick chemical tales for colour and drama. Their approaches, though, are very different, falling across the old faultline that divides chemistry from physics. The elements exist at the very interface between the two.
This has led to squabbles about naming them, which the physicists have won hands down. The only chemists enshrined in the names of elements are the discoverer of the Periodic Table, Russian Dmitri Mendeleev (Mendelevium), Johan Gadolin (Gadolinium), and Marie Curie (Curium). Even then Curie was both chemist and physicist, winning a Nobel Prize in each.
Mendeleev's Periodic Table of 1869 is one of the great unlockings of the universe's secrets because it had predictive power. Only 56 of the elements were known at the time but he was able to predict not only the existence of the missing ones but their properties. When the ghosts materialised just as he had foretold, the matter was clinched.
Aldersey-Williams is almost entirely chemical; he has loved colourful chemistry since childhood and in the book conducts little household experiments wherever possible - such as extracting phosphorus from his own urine, following the original discovery by Hennig Brand in 1669. Kean, on the other hand, bristles with the underlying physics that dictates the chemical properties; he is also much more hard-nosed, drawing attention to more of the dangerous side of the elements.
Their approaches are most starkly divergent in the cases of niobium and tantalum. Aldersey-Williams has a benign interlude on their use in jewellery; Kean tells the story of their use in mobile phones, their sourcing in the mineral coltan, and the war and atrocities in the Congo fuelled by uncontrolled mining for this valuable substance.
Kean also has a new angle on the atomic bomb: how many people know that the 1939 discoverer of atomic fission was an Austrian-Jewish woman, Lise Meitner? The work is always ascribed to "Hahn and Meitner" but, as Kean explains, the vital interpretation was made by Meitner. She suffered marginalisation as a woman, then forced exile as a Jew. Hahn received the Nobel Prize alone in 1944. Meitner's name lives on as one of the elements (115 Meitnerium) – truly, one of the most enduring kinds of immortality.
Science and art together constitute Aldersey Williams's subject and he is especially good on the chemistry of artists' colours. Blue has always been an elusive colour and pigments of that hue are much sought after. The blue cobalt pigment smalt lay behind Chinese porcelain, majolica, and the mosque at Isfahan. Aldersey-Williams sees "an image of dusty blue tracks radiating east and west from the mines of Persia and Saxony to the great artistic centres of the world, like the starbursts on an airline route map".
The disappearing spoon of Kean's title? It's a party trick: gallium is a malleable metal, easily formed into a spoon. You offer a cup of tea with a gallium spoon and the spoon dissolves, gallium having a melting point of just under 30oC – the only metal with anything like this property. Mercury, of course, is already a liquid at room temperature.
James Lovelock has complained that young people are being deprived of the delights of chemistry by Health and Safety considerations. When you finish Periodic Tales, you don't have much doubt that he is right. If you're tempted by Aldersey-Williams's hands-on experiments, you will struggle to acquire the ingredients.
It was different in the 1950s. His childhood experiences of kitchen chemistry chime with my own. I used to do terrible things with molten lead, obnoxious gases and nitrogen tri-iodide, which once exploded in quantity. I was taught by a grumpy old chemistry teacher who hardened us by exposure to chlorine, sulphur dioxide and other seriously unpleasant substances.
Chemistry is a vivid, thrilling subject yet it has been shuffled offstage by timid bureaucrats. Perhaps these rumbustious narratives, pungent with the reek of primal matter, will whet an appetite.
The ghost at this chemical feast is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. Aldersey-Williams and Kean write as curious and benign enthusiasts; Levi wrote as a professional chemist whose life was probably saved by his skill. Levi's book is an autobiography in which certain chemical elements were bound up with cruxes in his life. Working in the lab at Auschwitz, he found a store of cerium, which he whittled down to make cigarette lighter flints: life-saving currency in the camp's black market.
Cerium is one of the 17 "rare earth" elements and, strangely, both these books miss a trick in dealing with them. They were, until fairly recently, of little industrial importance.
All that changed with hi-tech – you might have five (lanthanum, cerium, terbium, yttrium and europium) in your long-life lightbulbs. They also have military applications – in lasers for smart bombs, for example. In 2002 the US ceded production of these vital strategic materials to China, which now produces 97 per cent of the world supply. Last year, China announced an 11 per cent cut in export quotas for 2011, throwing the world IT industry into some panic. Mines are being reopened in the West, but how could the US have given away a vital technical resource to its global rival?
With the rare earth crisis upon us and the stain of carbon's insidious effect on climate ever growing, we can be sure that understanding chemistry is going to be just as vital for our collective future as it was for Levi's personal survival. Read both these books, and if you haven't, read Primo Levi too. The time has come when a working knowledge of the elements should become "the great and frequent business of the human mind".
Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' is published by YaleReuse content