The periodic table of elements is iconic. It inspires scientists, poets and rock musicians. Mendeleev created it by arranging known chemical elements in increasing order of their atomic weights (atomic numbers are used now) and in rows and columns in such a way that elements in the same column had similar properties. As a student of Sanskrit, he may have been inspired by Panini who arranged Sanskrit letters in the same two-dimensional way to bring out their properties. Mendeleev’s scheme worked so well that he turned a prophet and predicted 8 new elements, each with a Sanskrit prefix, and their properties. All came true. He became so revered that the Czar overlooked his bigamy, saying “he has two wives, yes, but I have only one Mendeleev”. At one time the table had only 90 elements which were naturally occurring but now, elements are being created in the laboratory and recently element 119 was reported, starting a new row. The periodic table lives. Out of these, how do you pick the ones that changed the world?
Fermi and Szilard working on uranium at Columbia University knew that it would unleash enormous power. Bardeen, who along with Shockley and Brittain discovered semiconductors, had a different experience. He returned home from Bell labs one evening and went into the kitchen to say “We discovered something today”. His wife replied “That is interesting, but I have to get dinner on the table”. The elements combine in various proportions and give rise to materials which are the basis of our civilisation. Industries worth several crores and employing many people depend on these materials and new ones are still being discovered.
Memoir and history
John Browne has written a personal account, travel memoir and history, all centred around seven elements and the materials containing them. His choice falls on carbon, the ancient elements — iron, gold and silver — and uranium, titanium and silicon. He restricts himself to elements that are solids at room temperature. Thus oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen which makeup the air we breathe and the water we drink are not celebrated. Carbon which forms the basis of life is discussed, more because of its combination with hydrogen to form fossil fuels. Rare earths and other energy critical elements which are becoming important are not considered. Browne talks about elements that have already changed the world and he had a ring seat to watch his seven elements unfold the drama.
In the chapter on iron (and its compound with carbon: steel) he describes not only Bessemer’s innovation which resulted in mass production, but also steel’s role in warfare and infrastructure; and the legends of this industry including Tata. As can be expected from a former CEO of British Petroleum, carbon in the form of coal, oil, natural gas and shale gas, the prosperity it brought, its role in politics and pollution form the biggest chapter with a brief reference to graphene in a postscript.
The chapter on gold is a history of lust: Spanish forces decimating Incas and California gold rush. We won’t learn here that crashes involving black holes and neutron stars created gold. Silver is included in the book because of its use in nitrate form in photography. Who can overlook the eloquent images which summed up experiences of generations? Photography has gone digital now but silver remains personal. Fibres with nanoparticles of silver may give rise to wearable electronics. The chapter on uranium starts with Hiroshima and goes on to describe the “atoms for peace” efforts and security issues. Titanium which gave birth to supersonic Blackbird and Russian submarines also finds use in oxide form in white pigments. Architect Gehry used 33,000 panels of titanium to line a museum because it retains a velvety sheen in darkness and light. The author traces the origin of silicon in glass before moving on to solar cells, computers and optical fibres for high-speed communication. No other element has changed life so drastically.
The book is eminently readable, has 88 photos of events and personalities and 45 pages of notes for more information. It is accessible — refers to cartoons to illustrate points. It will find a place in any library and will appeal to anyone interested in science and culture. Its theme is universal. Just as seven notes combine in myriad forms to give beautiful music, the seven elements produce materials which define our times.
(N. Balasubramanian is advisor, Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bangalore).