Book review: The Elements

The Elements — a tour of the periodic table by Adrian Dingle, 2017, 224 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-1-4351-6463-5  $8.98 Barnes and Noble.  (at the time of publication) 

The Elements — a tour of the periodic table is one of a plethora of books on the subject. Dingle’s version focuses on each element’s history, uses and how they connect to each other. Dingle devotes two pages to each element and includes all 92 elements, from hydrogen to uranium as well as two transuranium elements. Each element's biography is embellished with excellent photographs and interesting details.

Also included with each element is an electron configuration. Many chemistry teachers may be put off by the use of the Bohr-Rutherford style; however, this model is sufficient for the general nature of the book and consistent with the Ontario objectives for Grade 11.

While chemistry teachers as a group have excellent background knowledge for a large body of elements, there are still many for which we have little knowledge. Numerous transition metals and rare earth metals were neither part of our own education nor present in our current syllabuses. This book provides a succinct snapshot to add to your background and repertoire.

Dingle's element presentation is uniquely interesting as he has divided the table into 11 somewhat unusual sections. However, by his explanation, his groupings make perfect sense. Dingle provides a two-page explanation for each grouping. The only break in this symmetry is a slightly longer introduction that includes a brief history of the Periodic Table.

The Elements begins with hydrogen. This is followed by the alkali metals and alkaline earth metals. The family names are explained, especially the term "earth". While these elements are, for the most part, involved in typical high school chemistry courses, many engaging tidbits can be gleaned and added to a teacher’s arsenal. Numerous interesting aspects and stories of these elements are presented, revolving around the "Radium Girls", fallout or executions.

Dingle then tackles the transition metals, starting by explaining the confusion with the name and how the definition has changed over time. One surprising but still reasonable definition of a transition metal would actually exclude groups 3 and 12 (IB and XB if you are "old school")! Within this large group of 29 elements — with lanthanum as well as actinium removed for good reason — many stories are presented. Reading about the discovery of these elements, properties and uses helps to flesh out the entire group and is worthwhile for any chemistry teacher. On a personal level, it turns out that one metal was discovered by blowpipe. This was particularly reminiscent to me as, early in my career, classes enjoyed smelting an ingot of lead by blowpipe on a charcoal block. In this section you will discover elements with oxidation states of +8, +9 and a predicted +10! The incredible properties of numerous alloys, such as Nitinol, Invar and Elinvar, are also discussed.

Dingle divides the p-block elements into five categories: the post transition metals (described as "poor metals"), the metalloids (as "poor non-metals"), and then the remaining non-metals, halogens and noble gases. There are many great highlights in these sections. Noteworthy elements include the first cosmetic (still in use) the reason we use "thio" to denote sulfur and the essential element which can be detrimental to your social life (if taken in excess).

Then lanthanoids and actinoids are addressed after metalloids, prior to the remaining non-metallic elements. Dingle is quick to defend the designation of "oid" rather than the older "ide" ending, and he delves into the challenges with the allocation of elements within the
f-block. His
table, like many others, leaves a blank after barium and radium with 15 elements in each of the two rows.

One clearly gets a sense of the challenges chemists had in attempting to isolate these rare earth elements — many of which are not rare at all. The Elements provides an introductory background and many noteworthy elements, e.g., touching on ultra-strong magnets, flints in flint lighters and an MRI contrasting agent. Of course, if you still have Fiestaware dishes, you may want to test them with a Geiger counter!

The Elements is an easy book to read and one filled with interesting facts about elements. If you are in the habit of challenging your students with puzzles and riddles, The Elements would be an excellent sourcebook that could easily give you daily material for the entire year. It also would make an excellent gift for a family member with a curiosity for science.