Free Press Journal

Elemental by Tim James: Review


Title: Elemental
Author: Tim James
Publisher: Robinson
Pages: 216; Price: 499


The cover will make you feel like you are going to read something related to chemistry. Don’t go by the cover, because every ‘element’ (read sentence) gives a message. Don’t search for the elements in the periodic table with atomic number right away! For, it’s the name in a periodic table form — Elemental.

For an avid reader, the book is intriguing. No matter whether you like science, especially chemistry, or not, the content won’t bore you. The language is simple and facts are kept straight. For a voracious reader, it won’t be difficult to grasp the juicy properties of the elements. Understanding the fundamental building block of the universe will definitely help you in some point of time in life.
Authored by Tim James, a secondary school teacher in the UK, Elemental is his debut venture. But, it doesn’t seem so. According to him, everything that exists is a chemical. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth, the fuss we make about food, it, too, is a chemical. And we, the human beings, we all are chemicals. Tim explains everything with minutest detail as to how an element came into being, what are its properties, its names, who and what led to its invention or discovery and the inventor.

The author unravels the mystery chemistry is and presents it in a simplified and quirky manner. What makes the firelight, how oxygen acts as a catalyst, what element is even more combustible that lights the carrier itself, how it was stored and handled, how it set to fire the concrete floor, what led the inventor to stop its use altogether. Any question you can think of is answered beautifully in Elemental, the history of chemistry. The book is worth a read.

It is not about chemical formula the book has numerous stories associated with the inventions, making it even more interesting. The small stories have far-bigger impacts on human lives than we can think of. How the universe came into existence, and how a metal was transformed into gold, a dream that became a reality.

An incident in the history of chemistry happened in 1669. A scientist thought of making a fortune by boiling urine, leaving it to get cold and solidifying it to become a yellow metal. What he got in the experiment was bone-chilling. “Though he could not produce any metal, as he was expecting, he produced phosphorous. A period of next six years was hard time for him, as he ended up spending all his wife’s money. Each 60gm of phosphorous required five and half a tonne of urine to be boiled. He had to eventually go public with the invention and sell it to the scientific company.”

The book narrates another incident of execution. In 1886, a committee had decided not to execute criminals by hanging. A more humane method was required. An electrocution chair was designed by New York dentist Alfred Southwick much before the need arose. Though more gruesome, the method was endorsed by Thomas Edison himself.  Thus, the book is not purely restricted to periodic table elements but narrates many such life events. How people created wonderful possibilities, not for themselves, but for generations to come!