Seven Elements that Changed the World: An Adventure of Ingenuity and Discovery

Seven Elements that Changed the World: An Adventure of Ingenuity and Discovery

4.5 2
by John Browne
     
 

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The fascinating story of how seven elements—iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon—have changed modern life, for good and ill.With carbon we access heat, light and mobility at the flick of a switch, while silicon enables us to communicate across the globe in an instant.Yet our use of the Earth's mineral resources is not always for the

Overview

The fascinating story of how seven elements—iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon—have changed modern life, for good and ill.With carbon we access heat, light and mobility at the flick of a switch, while silicon enables us to communicate across the globe in an instant.Yet our use of the Earth's mineral resources is not always for the benefit of humankind—our relationship with the elements is one of great ambivalence.Uranium is both productive (nuclear power) and destructive (nuclear bombs); iron is the bloody weapon of war, but also the economic tool of peace; our desire for alluring gold is the foundation of global trade, but has also led to the death of millions. John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum (BP) for twelve years, vividly describes how seven elements are shaping the world around us, for better and for worse.Combining history, science, and politics, Seven Elements takes you on a present-day adventure of human passion and innovation. This journey is far from over: we continue to find surprising new uses for these seven elements. In this narrative of discovery, readers will come to understand how titanium pervades modern consumer society, how natural gas is transforming the global energy sector, and how an innovative new form of carbon could be starting a technology revolution.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/21/2013
Retiring after 12 years as CEO of British Petroleum, Browne took up writing, and the result is an admirable popular science account of how iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon affect our lives. Beginning with iron, “the backbone of all industry,” he delivers a description of each element, its history, and its uses today. Carbon provides fuel (in the forms of coal, oil, natural gas), stimulates wars to obtain it, and is a component of the carbon dioxide that is warming our globe. Moreover, adding carbon to iron produces steel, which is far stronger. Lighter and more corrosion-resistant than steel, titanium has been touted as a miracle metal but remains too expensive for large-scale use. Gold and silver, being precious metals, seem obvious, but like oil today, their value has been the source of conflict and innovation for millennia. And centuries before the modern microchip, silicon provided an altogether different, but no less important, technological marvel: glass. An expert on carbon (i.e., oil), Browne relies on the public library for much information but mixes in his travels and anecdotes from an impressive career to produce a lively, educational examination of civilization’s building blocks. (Feb.)
Daniel Yergin
“John
Browne uses seven elements, the building blocks of the physical world,
to explore a multitude of worlds beyond. A lively story that enables us to see the essential elements of modern life in a new and highly engaging way.”
Tony Blair
“The human quest for knowledge has led to extraordinary progress.This book forces us to confront these realities and does so in a unique and fascinating way. It weaves science and humanity together in a way that gives us new insight. This is an expertly crafted book by a unique thinker.”
Brian Cox
“Part popular science, part history, part memoir, these pages are infused with insight and lifted by the innate optimism of a scientist.”
Library Journal
12/01/2013
While the title and cover may lead readers to expect this book to be similar to Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson's Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, it mixes in a lot of memoir. The author considers iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon through the lens of science, history, politics, and his professional experience at British Petroleum (BP), where he rose to be group chief executive from 1995 to 2007. (The memoir strands are especially prominent in the chapter on carbon.) Browne's background lends a distinct perspective, as he recalls oil rights negotiations with Russian businessmen and accidents in the oil industry. However, this also results in his work having a somewhat uneven tone. Some readers may welcome the personal touch combined with popular science and history, but others, like this reviewer, may find that they would have preferred two separate volumes rather than a whirlwind tour of both Browne's professional life and the elements in question. VERDICT An interesting, if uneven read. An optional purchase.—Carla H. Lee, Univ. of Virginia Libs., Charlottesville
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-25
Personal observations on how the use of seven elements has shaped human civilizations. "Over the course of my forty-five years in business, including twelve as the leader of BP, I saw the very best and the very worst that the elements can do for humanity," observes former British Petroleum CEO Browne (Beyond Business: An Inspirational Memoir from a Visionary Leader, 2011) at the outset of this idiosyncratic survey. The author has selected seven elements he believes have been prime contributors to the building of the modern world: iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon. Regarding each element, he reaches back to its use in the ancient world or more recent discovery and then examines the changes each has wrought throughout history. Any such selection will be arbitrary; for example, some may puzzle over his choice of titanium as one of the seven instead of copper, which gave us developments from the Bronze Age to telegraphy and telephony, passed over since "electrical engineering will have its fair share with silicon." Browne makes cameo appearances throughout the book, generally in the course of rubbing elbows with the powerful, and the exposition is clearly shaped by his interests and experiences. Having spent a lifetime in the oil business, he has much to say about carbon as a fuel but never mentions plastics, and his collection of more than 100 glass (that is, silicon) elephants appears alongside the development of semiconductors. Such quirks aside, the topics the author chooses to cover, ranging from the use of coal in ancient China to the Bessemer converter and silver photography, unfold in thoughtful detail, and the ample footnotes accompanying the text are as diverting as they are helpful. Somewhat entertaining but lightweight stroll through some of the chemical underpinnings of the modern world.
Booklist
“In his first foray into popular-science writing, Browne does an admirable job crafting an informative and engrossing chemistry-based view of history.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781605985404
Publisher:
Pegasus
Publication date:
03/01/2014
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
1,248,440
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Meet the Author

John Browne was born in Germany in 1948 and joined BP as a university apprentice in 1966, rising to Group Chief Executive from 1995 to 2007, where he built a reputation as a visionary leader, regularly voted the most admired businessman by his peers. He splits his time between London and Venice.

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Seven Elements that Changed the World: An Adventure of Ingenuity and Discovery 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
HenryBeemis More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting presentation of how the seven elements discussed had a profound effect on the development of civilization. The chapters on silver and gold seem to be a bit short. There are numerous informative footnotes throughout the text. So many that they seem to distract from the text itself. It may be best to read each chapter first, and then go back and read the notes. Nevertheless this is a well crafted way to get some history mixed in with your science.
BLUEFISH99 More than 1 year ago
Well I certainly went on a learning curve when I read this book. A mine of information about the 7 elements that changed history and how they affected climate change and how by using these alone have impacted our lives without realising it..