Friday Sprog Blogging: Elements with Style.

At long last, we review a book to which we have alluded in at least two previous posts.


The book: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style, written by Adrian Dingle, illustrated by Simon Basher. (Boston: Kingfisher, 2007)

The format:

The book introduces several representative elements from the periodic table. For each element, there's a listing of crucial information like the element's symbol, atomic number, atomic weight, color, standard state, density, melting point, boiling point, and data of discovery. But the real story is the first person introduction to each element's character, tendencies, and common uses. Hydrogen says, "I am the simplest and lightest of all the elements, the most abundant in the universe, and the source of everything in it -- from matter and energy to life." Cesium pipes up, "Soft and golden, I'm way more exciting than gold." Magnesium chirps, "I'm happy to mix in any social gathering of the elements, making friends with anyone." Iron hollers, "I am at the center of everything."

Clearly, there are a lot of strong personalities here.

For all the elements that appear in this book (except hydrogen), the introductions to the elements are preceded by a discussion of the group they run with -- the alkali metals, the halogens, the carbon elements, and so on. The book offers a description for each of the groups in the periodic table, including the lanthanides and actinides and the transactinides (although given their instability, we don't get to meet individuals from the latter group). The group descriptions are a little less gripping than the portraits of the elements in each group, but they do a nice job conveying which groups have elements that seems to copy each other closely and which of these periodic table cliques seem to tolerate more individualism.

Each element also has a portrait, a bold graphic that conveys some visual clue to the element's temperament of common uses.

Of course, the book includes these portraits in periodic table layout, too. And the book includes an index and a glossary.

As a casual read, this is not a book that will leave a kid with exhaustive knowledge about all the chemical elements. However, the "personal information" about these elements comes across as quirky and compelling, and it's hard for the young reader to resist forming some opinions about which elements he or she would like to hang out with.


Dr. Free-Ride: What of you think about this book?

Elder offspring: I like how it describes the different elements and what kinds of "personalities" they have. Also, the book talks about the elements in groups, and they're the same groups that are in the actual official Periodic Table.

Dr. Free-Ride: (to the younger Free-Ride offspring) And what do you think of this book?

Elder offspring: [The younger Free-Ride offspring] just looks at the pictures.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, [the younger Free-Ride offspring] has a big vocabulary and good reading skills!

Younger offspring: I mostly just look at the pictures rather than reading all the words. But I do read the names of the elements. I like Rubidium the best. The pictures really match the personalities of the elements, so you know what they're like.

Dr. Free-Ride: It's actually kind of hard to wrap your head around the idea of what an element is.

Elder offspring: Elements are like the stuff that other things are made out of, right?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, each atom in each molecule is an atom of one of the elements.

Younger offspring: Like water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes. But you can also have substances that are made of just one element, and you can have enough to see it. Like the graphite in your pencil -- that's all carbon.

Elder offspring: A diamond is all carbon, too.

Younger offspring: And the helium in a balloon is all helium?

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: Probably. Might depend on the helium tank. Anyway, does this book make you want to read more about chemistry or about different materials?

Elder offspring: Yes! Do you have any other books for us?

Dr. Free-Ride: Umm, let me get back to you on that. (to the younger Free-Ride offspring) Does it make you want to learn more about chemistry?

Younger offspring: No, I still want to learn why there's lava in the center of the earth.

Elder offspring: It's not called lava when it's in the center of the earth, it's called magma.

Dr. Free-Ride: You know, it's possible to pursue more than one set of questions at a time. Not everything you're curious about has to end up being part of your science fair project.

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Dear Dr. You ought to consider having them read this book to the accompaniment of Tom Lehrer singing his elements song.Call it positive reinforcement and a good time to be had by all.Really enjoy your blog and the sprog themed blogs and look forward to Fridays.

By donquijoterocket (not verified) on 17 Oct 2008 #permalink

Younger offspring: And the helium in a balloon is all helium?

YO is about 6, isnt she? If so, she has mad chemistry skillz!

By Donalbain (not verified) on 17 Oct 2008 #permalink

I remember reading Oliver Sachs's memoir "Uncle Tungsten", which I daresay should be mandatory reading for every one on the planet (I liked it, to say the least).

At one point he mentions that he loved crystals because they were like tremendous magnifying glasses that allowed him a peek into the structure of the molecules.

Crystals are always a safe bet when it comes to interesting kids in chemistry (and many adults). Of course it's gotten harder for people to get their hands on things like copper sulfate. I'd like to call for a brief moment of silence as we lament the death of the chemistry set.


The book is nice, some people have a problem with anthropomorphizing the objects of scientific study lest it lead to idiocy later on. However, even now, when looking at Lewis diagrams and working out organic structures I still think of making the ions "happy" like my eighth grade teacher taught me.