Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements

Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements

by John Emsley


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Written by award-winning science writer John Emsley, this informative and highly enjoyable book explains the what, the why and the wherefore of the elements. Arranged alphabetically, from Actinium to Zirconium, it is a complete guide to all the elements that are currently known, with more extensive coverage of those we encounter in our everyday life. The entry on each element reveals where it came from, what role it may have in the human body, the foods that contain it, how it was discovered, its role in human health, the uses and misuses to which it is put, and its environmental role. The new edition includes the three chemical elements discovered since the first edition—Darmstadtium, Roetgenium, and Copernicium—and the section on "transfermium elements" has now been incorporated into the main part of the book. In addition, Emsley has added new information on the economic uses of elements such as Scandium and Gold. Praised by Nature as "amusing and finely crafted," Nature's Building Blocks offers a pleasurable tour of the very essence of our material world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780199605637
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 10/01/2011
Edition description: New
Pages: 720
Sales rank: 436,573
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

John Emsley won the Science Book prize in 1995 for his Consumer's Good Chemical Guide, and followed this with a series of popular science books: Molecules at an Exhibition, Was it Something You Ate? (co-authored with P. Fell), and The Shocking History of Phosphorus, all of which have been translated into many other languages. After 20 years as a researcher and lecturer in chemistry at London University, he became a freelance writer, as well as Science Writer in Residence, first at Imperial College London and then at Cambridge University. In 2003 he was awarded the German Chemical Society's Writer's Award.

Table of Contents

The elements (A-Z)
The periodic table
Appendix: the discovery of the elements in chronological order
Lists of elements and atomic numbers

What People are Saying About This

Oliver Sacks

"A marvel-encyclopedic in scope, but so full of enthusiasm, so engagingly written, that one can open it at any point and read for sheer delight. It is Dr. Emsley's new book which will now sit next to me on my desk."


"This is a fine, amusing and quirky book … to be browsed and savored in idle moments."


Exclusive Author Essay
Element of Surprise

Who doesn't enjoy watching fireworks? Noisy, exciting, colorful. It seems hard to imagine today, but once upon a time people used to make their own fireworks. When I went to school it was still possible to buy the essential ingredients: saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, charcoal, and iron filings, and my friends and I experimented with them. Of course the fireworks we made were not very impressive -- a fizz and a few yellow sparks were all we produced -- and the reason was that we knew no chemistry.

When eventually I was taught chemistry at school, things became much clearer, and the more chemistry I learned, the more interested I became. So what is it about fireworks that make them such a good advertisement for the chemical elements? The most obvious link between them is that three of the traditional ingredients (sulfur, charcoal, and iron filings) are simply pure chemical elements, as is magnesium powder, which is used to create a brilliant white flame. But if you want color, then you need to know a little more about some of the other chemical elements, such as strontium, whose compounds burn with a bright red flame; or barium and copper, which burn green; or sodium, which can color flames a bright yellow.

And blue? No element burns with a purely blue flame, and if you attend a firework show you might notice how few of the bursts of stars that light up the sky are blue in color. Indeed, one of the skills of a practiced firework maker is to produce a blue display, and it is done by a careful combination of other colors, which are blended so as to appear blue.

We now know of 114 chemical elements, although only 85 or so are to be found on Earth, and it's from these that everything we see around us is made. About a dozen of them are used in firework manufacture. Even more are needed to create a human being, and while there are at least a few atoms of 90 elements in our bodies (and that includes gold and uranium), most are not essential to life and are simply there because there are minute traces of them in the foods we eat. Nevertheless, 25 elements are vital, and that goes for cobalt (the metal we normally associate with the pigment cobalt blue used by artists), chromium (of chrome plating), and nickel (used in coins and stainless steel), although the amounts of these in our bodies are tiny.

A lifelong career in chemistry has led me to collect all kinds of interesting facts about the chemical elements, and these I have turned into the book Nature's Building Blocks. In it I tell the fascinating story of each element, under headings such as cosmic element, human element, food element, medical element, historical element, economic element, element of war, environmental element, and, or course, chemical element. And at the end of each section I include an "element of surprise," with a fact so surprising that I felt it needed special note.

For example, we think of uranium as a modern element, essential for generating nuclear power and atomic bombs. Yet 2,000 years ago, in the time of Christ and the Roman Empire, a workman who made the tiles for mosaic floors used a uranium pigment to color some of them a fluorescent green. Where he got his uranium from we will never know, and those who stood on the floors of villas he decorated with his mosaics were happily unaware that the wonderful new color they so admired was giving them a daily dose of radiation! (John Emsley)

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