Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zincby Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Like the alphabet, the calendar, or the zodiac, the periodic table of the chemical elements has a permanent place in our imagination. But aside from the handful of common ones (iron, carbon, copper, gold), the elements themselves remain wrapped in mystery. We do not know what most of them look like, how they exist in nature, how they got their names, or of what use… See more details below
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Like the alphabet, the calendar, or the zodiac, the periodic table of the chemical elements has a permanent place in our imagination. But aside from the handful of common ones (iron, carbon, copper, gold), the elements themselves remain wrapped in mystery. We do not know what most of them look like, how they exist in nature, how they got their names, or of what use they are to us. Unlocking their astonishing secrets and colorful pasts, Periodic Tales is a passionate journey through mines and artists’ studios, to factories and cathedrals, into the woods and to the sea to discover the true stories of these fascinating but mysterious building blocks of the universe.
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Periodic TalesA Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc
By Hugh Aldersey-Williams
EccoCopyright © 2011 Hugh Aldersey-Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn 2008, the British Museum commissioned a life size sculpture
of the model Kate Moss. The artwork, called Siren, is made
entirely of gold and is said to be the largest gold sculpture created
since the days of ancient Egypt, though it's impossible to check
whether this is true. Siren was placed on show in the museum's
Nereid Gallery near a statue of a bathing Aphrodite. My immediate
impression on seeing Kate Moss's otherwise familiar image
is how tiny she looks, accentuated by the fact that she is knotted
in a particularly uncomfortable-looking yoga position, though
this may be an optical illusion we are unused, after all, to seeing
so much of the shining metal at once. The gold, I am
disappointed to find, is not polished to a high gloss but has a steely
brushed finish, which elicits a high sparkle from the grains in the
textured surface, not the burnished glow I had expected to see.
There are signs of pitting in the casting, which a different goldsmith
might have taken care of. The unique qualities of the metal
that have made it precious to cultures since antiquity seem poorly
served. Only the face is perfectly smooth, and is immediately
reminiscent of the funerary mask of Tutenkhamun. The lifeless
staring visage has the disturbing effect, entirely unexpected
given the high public profile of its subject, of plucking the
spectator out of time: this is no longer a rendering of the
twenty first century celebrity, but a depersonalized, detemporalized
figure whose sharp nose and pouting lips belong less to a
living person than to a death mask or votive figure.
The price put on the statue was £1.5 million. It was the whim
of the artist, Marc Quinn, that the work be fabricated from gold
of equal mass to the model's fifty kilogramme body, so that in
addition to appearing life-size, it could be said to represent her
weight in gold, perhaps raising in the mind of the astute
onlooker thoughts of ransom and slavery. In solid gold, I calculate,
Kate would be shrunk to the size of a garden ornament.
Quinn's piece must therefore be hollow, which may also be an
artistic comment of some kind. Although gold is the only
declared material from which the work is made, I figure there
must be some sort of armature to support the weight of the soft
metal, which would otherwise slump out of shape. Afterwards,
I look up the price of gold. Although Siren went on display during
a period of global financial upheaval, when the price of gold
had doubled, it was still only £15,000 a kilo, giving the artwork
a scrap value, as it were, of £750,000. Presumably the rest of the
£1.5 million is to cover labour.
I watch as people queue to take photographs of the golden
Moss, either simply snapping her image or sometimes placing
their partner in the shot next to her, making who knows what
sort of comparison. I am curious to know what has drawn them
to the sculpture. Which is more powerful: the cult of celebrity
or the cult of gold? What is really the siren here? It is mainly
men who have come to worship this modern Aphrodite. A few
purport to admire the sculptural qualities of the work. Some are
indeed drawn by the power of celebrity, but are fans of Quinn
more than Moss. I ask the girlfriend of one temporarily
distracted Polish man what she thinks of it. 'It is beautiful,' she
concedes, as if to say otherwise would be unacceptable, 'but it
doesn't belong here.' Another woman photographing it with
her phone is briskly dismissive: 'I need some gold for my mobile
More than any of the ancient elements, gold has been judged to
possess a timeless allure. None of the elements discovered by
modern science has challenged this supremacy. But what, if
anything, is truly special about this metal?
Gold is characteristically yellow. In a flower, one might find
this yellow attractive or not beauty is a matter of taste, after
all. But in gold, apparently, the unique combination of this colour
with the lustre of metal leaves us no other option than to be
drawn to it. Even the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, whom one
might expect to maintain some professional caution in the matter,
falls for the stuff. In a chapter on the 'pecuniary canons of
taste' in his classic text The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), he
writes that gold has a 'high degree of sensuous beauty' as if that
were an objective fact, and never mind the eye of the beholder.
There is then the fact that this colour and lustre endure,
because gold resists corrosion by the air, by water and indeed by
almost all chemical reagents. Pliny the Elder thinks it is this
unique quality of endurance, and specifically not its colour, that
explains our love of gold: 'it is the only metal that loses nothing
by contact with fire', he observes. It is this endurance that gives
gold its association with immortality, and so with royal lines
and divinity. The Buddha is gilded as an indication of enlightenment
and perfection, and the metal's incorruptibility inspires
a torrent of other ideals: the golden section, the golden mean,
the golden rule.
Gold is special also because of its great density, its malleability
and ductility it can be beaten as thin as hair and 'long
enough to encircle a whole village', as one West African proverb
puts it. It is surely the case that gold's heaviness, in particular,
signifies value in the way that dense materials often do, regardless
of their actual composition, because their relative weight
transmits a sense of sheer quantity. Gold's resistance to chemical
attack in other words its ability to retain its pure state signifies
value too, because we naturally place value in things that
endure. It is these economically important secondary attributes
of the element that give Veblen cause to comment on it at all.
And it is this muddled equation between beauty and value that
lies at the heart of our understanding of gold.
Though gold was known to the ancients, being the only
metal typically found in the elemental state, it was too soft for
making weapons and was perhaps not much used at first, even
for ornamental purposes. Even where it is relatively abundant,
such as in parts of Australia and New Zealand, aboriginal peoples
have often ignored it. In Europe, Africa and Asia, however, the
metal was generally highly prized and was soon taken up for
jewelry and then for coin. The first coins were stamped out of
electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, in Lydia in the
seventh century BCE. Around 550 BCE King Croesus minted purer
silver and gold coins, and from then on the yellow metal was
man's chosen element for the expression of great wealth. Backed
by state authority, Croesus' coinage boosted trade and banking.
For gold to hold its greater value as coin against native electrum
it had to be pure, and its purity had to be ascertainable by assay.
With this, gold became subject to comparative testing and
valuation as well as absolute worship.
Six hundred years later, Pliny is scathing about the corrupting
effect of gold, which he wished 'could be completely
banished from life'. He damns equally those who wear it and
those who trade with it: 'The first person to put gold on his
fingers committed the worst crime against human life.' 'The
second crime against mankind was committed by the person
who first struck a gold denarius.' The difficulty lies not with the
material itself, but with man's transforming hands upon it. Natural
gold may contain the light of the sun, but minted gold
becomes a 'symbol of perversion and the exaltation of unclean
desire'. Sir Thomas More confirms this moral distinction in
his Utopia, reserving its gold not for finery but for making
Harder heads have always understood that gold is the key to
power. Had not the Pharaohs reigned for 3,000 years relying on
their gold to contain the more ingenious Sumerians and
Babylonians? Had not the Romans been driven to conquest by their
envy of the gold possessed by the Gauls, the Carthaginians and
Such is the monetary value of gold that natural deposits tend to
acquire an aura so dazzling that they soon become detached
from any real geography. Ophir was the biblical source of Solomon's
gold. It is the port, probably in southern Arabia, from
which sails the gold-laden quinquereme of Nineveh in John
Masefield's 'Cargoes'. Strabo's Geographica mentions gold mining
on the African bank of the Red Sea, presumably one source
of the Egyptians' gold. But as the means expand so do the
imaginative horizons. By the time of the Portuguese navigator
Vasco da Gama, the best advice was that Ophir lay in southern
Africa, roughly where Zimbabwe is today, or perhaps in the
Philippines. Columbus thought Ophir was to be found on the
island of Hispaniola. With the Spanish expeditions to the New
World came new stories of fabulous gold and a new myth of El
Dorado. El Dorado, literally 'the golden man', was said to be a
tribal priest who was covered in gold for the performance of a
sacred ritual, but in the imagination of Western explorers it
became another unmapped place of riches, a new Ophir.
In March 1519, Hernando Cortés set out on such an expedition,
sailing from Cuba with eleven ships and a force of 600 men
to claim the mainland of Mexico and its treasure for the Spanish
crown. After various skirmishes, Cortés reached the Aztec capital
Tenochtitlan, where he and his men were ceremonially
received by the emperor Montezuma II and showered with gifts
of gold. By means of a subterfuge during the hospitality the
Spanish managed to take Montezuma prisoner; before long the
Aztec empire had fallen, and Spain was in control of most of
Mexico. For all their victory, however, Cortés's men found little
gold besides the presents they had been given by their hosts.
It was left to later settlers to develop the Mexican silver mines
that would bankroll the Spanish empire.
Thirteen years later, Francisco Pizarro, after lengthy preparations
including a voyage of reconnaissance down the Pacific
coast to the northern fringe of the Inca empire and another back
to Spain to obtain funding, set forth to Peru in search of Inca
treasure. Once again betraying the hospitality they were shown
(Pizarro had been coached by Cortés back in Spain), the
conquistadores launched a surprise attack and captured the Inca
ruler Atahualpa. As before, their plan was to control the territory
by holding him as vassal ruler. But Atahualpa had another
idea, a ransom calculated to appeal to the Spaniards: he bargained
his freedom in exchange for a room, some six metres by
five metres, that would be filled once with gold and twice with
silver as high as a man could reach. This 'ransom room' still
survives in Cajamarca, Peru. It is clear it cannot have been literally
filled. Nevertheless, the Spaniards melted down some eleven
tonnes of handsomely crafted gold artifacts for transport as
bullion back to Spain. As the ships set sail, they reneged on the deal
and put Atahualpa to death.
These were great windfalls. But where was El Dorado? The
search went on. Pizarro's half-brother Gonzalo set off inland
from Quito in Ecuador in 1541, but found no city of gold, only
a route to the Atlantic Ocean via the River Amazon. Other
Spanish adventurers heard stories of the Muisca people of
Colombia, who threw gold offerings into a mountaintop lake in
order to appease the golden god supposed to live at the bottom
of it. When they arrived, they rudely set about trying to drain
the lake, but in 400 years only a few pieces of gold have been
In 1596, Walter Ralegh sailed to Venezuela, coming away
with little gold but his belief in El Dorado nevertheless intact.
Accounts of these voyages gave Voltaire plenty of material with
which to lampoon the rapacity of the Europeans in his
picaresque novella of 1759, Candide. The naive hero Candide is
expelled from his vapid and paradisiacal life in Westphalia to
travel the world and witness its hardships, from the Thirty
Years' War to the Lisbon earthquake. He finds Eldorado with no
trouble and, after being royally entertained, is sent on his way
with gifts of fifty sheep laden with gold and jewels. At first,
Candide and his companions are buoyed up by the vision of
themselves as the 'possessors of more treasures than Asia, Europe
and Africa could gather', but as they travel on, the sheep fall by
the wayside in ones and twos, bogged down in swamps, or fallen
from precipices, forcing Candide to acknowledge 'how the
riches of the world are perishable'.
Between 1520 and 1660, Spain imported 200 tonnes of gold,
never finding it in one convenient hoard, but by expanding its
mining activities throughout its territories in the New World.
El Dorado was never a place; always an idea.
What these recurrent episodes have in common, apart from
European greed and treachery is the presumption that all
parties are agreed that gold is the most valuable substance known to
man. This was nothing like the case. The Aztecs and the Incas
and other New World indigenous peoples made golden
offerings to the gods but did not use the metal for money, so it had
little tradable value, and in some cases other metals were more
desirable even for religious purposes.
The Taíno inhabitants of Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico,
for example, assigned distinct roles to gold and silver, and also
to a range of coloured alloys. These natives, treated as slaves by
Columbus and his followers, found a friend in Bartolomé de Las
Casas, the first Christian priest to be ordained in the New World.
Las Casas was the author of a history of the Indies, a founder of
utopian communities and a believer in liberation theology who
thought Cortés a vulgar adventurer. He observed the Taíno
customs and found that they did not prize gold for its weight
or colour, or regard it as self-evidently valuable as the Spaniards did.
Excerpted from Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams Copyright © 2011 by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Hugh Aldersey-Williams is the author of numerous books on architecture, design, and science, including Panicology and The Most Beautiful Molecule, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He lives in Norfolk, England.
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Very interesting read, full of elemental barroom trivia. Some of the similarities between the stories lessens the enjoyment in the middle, but overall a great buy.
Loved it. It provides an not only a look at the table itself, it provides a look at the history of their discovery and discoverers. I enjoyed the background of how they were used and continue to be used.
Tells a unique true story with verve and dash.
This book was boring. I have read other books on the subject and have to say any other book would be better
With a lack of details and an ignorance of common aquaponics designs and practices this book is a waste of money.