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It's Elementary

Tim Royappa

The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements. Philip Ball. xii + 216 pp. Oxford University Press, 2002. $25.

Philip Ball, who in 2001 published Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules, has now come out with a companion volume, The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements. Ball is careful to state in the preface that he is not restricting himself to the chemical elements. The book is not meant to be a tour of the periodic table, since even "water and air, salt, [and] subtle phlogiston" make their appearance; it could perhaps be more accurately described as a history of the elements.

It is an idiosyncratic history. Starting with the ancient Greek notion of the four elements (water, air, earth and fire), Ball traces the origin of the concept of elements as primary building blocks of all matter. The first three of the Greeks' four elements may have been merely archetypes of the various phases of matter.

Any discussion of the primary building blocks of matter is sure to come around to talk of atoms, and after chapters on oxygen and gold, Ball does turn his attention to atoms and the periodic table. It is perhaps a reflection of his stated prejudice against the periodic table that the reader does not discover until halfway through the book that an element is essentially defined by its atomic number (the number of protons in the nuclei of its atoms). Nowhere in the book is the precise modern definition of a chemical element actually stated.

Next Ball describes radioactivity and the closely related science of nuclear chemistry, which concerns itself with the synthesis of nonnatural elements and a study of their properties. One of the book's most interesting chapters has to do with the uses of isotopes, which are slightly different forms of a single element—"chemical brothers," as it were.

The final chapter singles out iron, silicon, palladium, the lanthanides and argon for special scrutiny (this is an idiosyncratic examination of the elements, after all). The technological applications of these elements and some of their compounds are engagingly portrayed in a grand finale. The author has saved the best for last.

These ingredients combine to make a tasty little book. One could wish it had been better illustrated—the text contains only black and white figures, and the nuggets of gold on the jacket look like potato chips—but this is a minor shortcoming.

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