The Elements We Live By: How Iron Helps Us Breathe, Potassium Lets Us See, and Other Surprising Superpowers of the Periodic Table

The Elements We Live By: How Iron Helps Us Breathe, Potassium Lets Us See, and Other Surprising Superpowers of the Periodic Table

by Anja Røyne


Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


The periodic table as you’ve never seen it before—starring the elements that power our bodies and our way of life

Some elements get all the attention: glittering gold, radioactive uranium—materials we call “precious” because they are so rare. But what could be more precious than the building blocks of life—from the oxygen in our air to the carbon in all living things?

In The Elements We Live By, physicist and award-winning author Anja Røyne reminds us that we’d be lost without the quiet heroes of the periodic table. Our bodies need phosphorous to hold our DNA together, potassium to power our optic nerves, and many more elements—in just the right amounts—to function. Other fundamental elements keep our technology (and society) running: Our phones contain arsenic, boron, and gallium to control signals and store information; indium and tin for the touch screen; and lithium for the battery.

Everything is made of elements—every galaxy, star, and planet—from the iron in Earth’s core to the silicon in its sand. But that doesn’t mean the elements we rely on will never run out; for example, about half of the lithium we need is extracted from rocks in Australia, and the other half is from saltwater in Argentina and Chile. As Røyne travels the world to find where these elements exist (some in ever-shrinking amounts), she shows how vitally urgent it is for us to protect them—the elements of our very existence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781615196456
Publisher: The Experiment
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 798,068
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Anja Røyne, PhD, is a scientist and lecturer in the department of physics at the University of Oslo. A physicist with a background in solar energy, Røyne has also researched geological and geochemical processes and is now working on creating materials with biotechnology. In addition, she runs her own science blog, has shared her expertise in newspaper and radio programs, and frequently gives popular science talks.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Our Fantastic and Catastrophic Relationship with the Planet We Live On 1

1 The History of the World and the Elements in Seven Days 5

Monday: The Birth of the Universe 5

From Tuesday to Thursday: Stars Are Born and Die 9

Friday: Our Solar System Is Formed 9

Saturday: Life Begins 12

Sunday: The Living Earth 16

A Half Second Before Midnight: The Age of Civilization 19

Humans and the Future 22

2 All That Glitters Isn't Gold 25

How Earth's Crust Did Us a Favor 26

The First Gold 27

Gold in the River Gravel 27

The Mines in Rosia Montana 29

Mining on the Surface 32

A Toxic Memory 33

From Stone to Metal 34

Gold Rings from a Ton of Stone 35

The End of Rosia Montana 37

Gold and Civilization 38

The Lost Gold 39

3 The Iron Age Isn't Over 43

There's No Point In Breathing Without Iron 44

Into The Iron Age 45

Swedish Iron 46

From Ore to Metal 49

Covetable Steel 50

The Problem with Rust 52

Can We Run Out of Iron? 54

Out of the Iron Age? 58

4 Copper, Aluminum, and Titanium: From Light Bulbs to Cyborgs 61

Copper in Cars, Bodies, and Water 62

The Copper Mines That Cleared the Forests 64

Aluminum: Red Clouds and White Pines 66

Using What We've Already Used 69

The Titanium in a Mountain 71

The Cyborgs Are Coming! 74

The Future of Machine People 77

5 Calcium and Silicon in Bones and Concrete 81

Hard and Brittle 82

Molding with Clay 83

The Messy Atoms in the Windowpane 84

From Algae to Concrete 87

Volcanic Ash in the Colosseum 89

Concrete That Scrapes the Clouds 91

Is There Enough Sand? 94

Living Ceramics Factories 96

6 Multitalented Carbon: Nails, Rubber, and Plastic 99

Natural Rubber and Venerable Vulcanization 100

From Timber to Textiles 103

Plastics of the Past 105

The Trash Island 107

What Do We Do With All This Plastic? 109

Plastic After Oil 111

7 Potassium, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus: The Elements That Give Us Food 113

The Journey to the Dead Sea 114

Nutrients in Our Nerves 116

Potassium from Water 118

Nitrogen from Air 119

Phosphorus from Rocks 122

Nutrients Gone Astray 127

The Future of the Dead Sea 128

8 Without Energy, Nothing Happens 129

Energy from the Sun 130

Draining Earth's Energy Stores 131

The Society We Want 132

Energy in, Energy Out 133

Out of the Fossil Society 135

Geothermal Heat and Nuclear Power: Energy from Earth's Beginnings 135

Power Straight from the Sun 137

Water That Runs, Wind That Blows 138

The Rare-Earth Elements 140

Power on a Quiet Winter Night 141

Cobalt in the Battery 143

Gasoline from Plants 146

Today We Eat Oil 148

9 Plan B 151

Unlimited Energy: A Sun on Earth 151

Elements in Space 155

Away from Earth? 158

10 Can We Use Up The Earth? 161

Limits for Growth 162

Growth That Is Happening Faster and Faster and Faster 164

The Necessity of Economic Growth 165

Can the Economy Grow without Using More Resources? 168

An Impossible Paradox? 170

The Habitable Zone 170

Acknowledgments 173

References 175

Index 205

About the Author 214

Customer Reviews