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Science Gifts: Elements and More

I’ve mentioned Theodore Gray’s book The Elements before as an fine gift for anyone’s who’s interested in science or chemistry. I have a copy at home, although I don’t have the follow-up, the Elements Vault, which apparently also has some chemical samples in it (doubtless of some of the less offensive elements!)
Last year I ordered the companion Elements Jigsaw Puzzle, which I did with the kids during January and February, to produce a three-foot-wide periodic table with information and photographs of each element. I did not miss the opportunity to mention some of the ones that I’d worked with (and I’m soon to add a couple of new ones to that list – more later). Gray also has a deck of element cards and a calendar, for your decorating needs.
There are other good entries in this area. The Disappearing Spoon is an entertaining book on various odd properties of the elements (chemists will have said “Gallium!” by now for the spoon of the title). I haven’t seen Periodic Tales, but it comes well recommended.
A slightly different note is struck by another book I’ve long recommended, Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, which is a memoir as well as a meditation on chemistry (and the love of chemistry). Another memoir, an episodic one, is of course the late Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. It’s somber at times, but also amusing, and when I read in it the phrase “Chlorides are rabble”, I knew I was in the presence of a good writer, a good chemist, and a good translator.

13 comments on “Science Gifts: Elements and More”

  1. Semichemist says:

    In the same vein as The Disappearing Spoon, I highly recommend The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Bloom. It’s an extremely well-written account of the birth of forensic science in New York and the use, effects of, and forensic detection of several poisons. It goes into great detail on the mechanisms of poisons on the body while still being entertaining and approachable to non-chemists. Great read.

  2. Semichemist says:

    That said, I am now becoming aware that there are likely a good amount of errors in that book that will potentially drive chemists insane. Oh well, still an entertaining read, if not completely accurate.

  3. John Emsley’s books on poisons are also well worth reading, especially his accounts of the Litvinenko Po-210 poisoning and Markov ricin poisoning cases.
    Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” is pretty good although he gets a few facts wrong in there; for instance Neil Bartlett never got the Nobel Prize (although Levi’s mistake makes it clear that he really should have).
    For sheer thrills and chills very few books can beat John Clark’s “Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants” of which free PDFs now abound.
    When I was growing up I read two fantastic books by S. Venetsky published by Mir Publishers from the old Soviet Union: “Tales about Metals” and “On Rare and Scattered Metals”. Still two of the best chemistry books I have ever read.

  4. Greg says:

    Another fast read is “Organic Chemistry, the Name Game” by Alex Nickon.

  5. Chris says:

    There is an iPad version of Theodore Gray’s book that includes videos of the elements “in action.,physics/the-elements-in-action/

  6. Lu says:

    1. Semichemist on December 10, 2013 2:13 PM writes…
    I highly recommend The Poisoner’s Handbook

    With all this NSA spying and such I’m afraid to even google it. I really am.

  7. MCM says:

    The Romance of Chemistry by Keith Gordon Irwin is a pretty cool book.

  8. fourtytwo says:

    “Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History” by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson is excellent. It’s great for chemists, but also accessible enough for a general audience.

  9. Nick K says:

    Primo Levi’s description of the fire he had when drying benzene with potassium is wonderful.

  10. Anonymous says:

    @6: It doesn’t matter because they already found you by your post here. Just look for a blue van surveillance outside your house, or check your wi-fi network for “NSA field support”.

  11. metaphysician says:

    I find it amusing how many of these recommended books I’ve already read. . .
    *looks up John Emsley* Want!

  12. Italian Chemist says:

    Levi’s Periodic Table is amazing: I’ve read it in Italian and I found it enlightening about old times of chemistry.

  13. CHEMIST HULK says:


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