Order, Order . . .

The Periodic Kingdom
October 13, 1995

When I read the title of this book I felt a stab of envy. Why didn't I think of that? The periodic table of 109 elements as a map, a country to be explored. There are hundreds of versions of the periodic table and lots of novel guises under which it appears, such as games, table mats, ties and T-shirts. It is the trademark of chemistry, but to leap from a logo to an allegory requires a special imagination. Peter Atkins has made that leap, and has landed on firm ground - but then he is one of the United Kingdom's leading writers of readable chemistry, with a span that encompasses advanced textbooks and popular paperbacks.

The Periodic Kingdom appears to be based on an introductory course of lectures in chemistry, covering the elements, their discovery, the evolution of the periodic table, atomic structure, electrons, orbitals and chemical bonds. Atkins presents the non-chemist reader with this information under the headings geography, history, government and institutions. And while lecturers have a captive audience, Atkins has to coax the general public, who are notoriously skilled in spotting popular chemistry books and putting them down. He needs all his skills as a writer to lure them into keeping hold of his book, and he does this by presenting them with a type of book they are already familiar with - a tourist guide.

Atkins carries the analogy between the periodic table and a map of the dark continent, Chemistry, to ingenious lengths. The blocks of elements in the table become the regions of the kingdom: the s-block becomes the Western Rectangle, the d-block the Isthmus, the p-block the Eastern Rectangle and the f-block the Southern Island. It is here that much land reclamation (making new elements) has gone on, a process which is today continuing along the southern shore of the Isthmus. Within these regions are the Western Desert, the Northwestern Cape and the Northeastern Triangle. There is also a tiny, but heavily populated island off the northern coast, and there are rumours of an Island of Stability awaiting discovery somewhere off the south coast.

Just as maps can show physical terrain, population density, rainfall or the underlying rock formations, so Atkins also has maps of basic elemental properties, such as atomic diameter, density and ionisation energy. He explains the variations across the chemical continent in terms of the underlying structure of matter, and the visitors are eventually exposed to the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, nodes and electron pairing. Atkins tackles all this in Part 3 of his book, entitled Government and Institutions, and within chapters labelled Laws of the Interior and Laws of the Exterior.

Chemists agonise about the need to communicate with the public, and chemical companies expend a lot of effort in trying to win the hearts and minds of the young. A good way to begin would be to encourage them to read The Periodic Kingdom, where they will become familiar with the framework of our science and see that it has its exciting places to visit. With a bit of luck Atkins may persuade some of them to emigrate there.

How good is this book as a guide to the land of the elements? Excellent, if you have never visited the place, but too short to satisfy the seasoned traveller. Atkins makes the chemistry come alive when he takes us to witness the effects of a rainstorm in the far Western Desert, or to explore the multicoloured precipice of the Eastern shore. We also visit the parliament and hear the acrimonious debates between the conservatives and the reformers. The issue which is currently engaging the parties in a controversy over the naming of new elements. There are also select committees sitting on the placing of certain elements and the numbering of the groups of the table.

I would have enjoyed reading more about these, and this is where I feel Atkins misses a chance to tell a few anecdotes about the natives of The Periodic Kingdom. The people in his book are mainly historical figures: those who discovered the elements; or were instrumental in designing the periodic table around them; or who uncovered the nature or the atom and so explained the periodicity. There are lots of monuments, blue plaques and museums to see on our tour, but not enough to help us relax in an evening.

And there's the rub. In trying to sell itself, chemistry has to compete with the wilder shores of cosmology, psychology and genetics where popular books with fun theories and mind bending philosophies abound. How can a staid old science like ours come up with ideas to fire the imagination of the young? Many who have never visited the land of chemistry are unwilling even to read about it, let alone go there, because of all the awful tales they have heard.

The residents speak a language you cannot understand, the signs are written in a script you cannot read, and the natives are unfriendly, spending their time making plastic packaging, pollution and poisons. They may be rich, and able to perform feats of magic, but it is not a place to live.

All the more reason then for an excellent introductory guide like The Periodic Kingdom. If they start to read it they will be seduced by Atkins's fluent style and, before they know it, they will have wandered deep into the dark continent and discovered that it really is a superb place to visit.

John Emsley is the science writer in residence at Imperial College, London, and the winner of the 1995 Rhone Poulenc Science Book Prize for his Consumer's Good Chemical Guide.

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements

Author - Peter Atkins
ISBN - 0 297 81641 1
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £9.99
Pages - 162

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