Book Review: Wonderful Life with the Elements

One of the publicists at No Starch Press alerted me to this recent title, knowing my enthusiasm for the excellent Manga Guide science text series, whose English editions they publish. I was expecting this latest made-in-Japan outing to be similarly quirky, and it did not disappoint.

Would it have ever occurred to you to visualize the noble gases as afro-sporting Japanese men? It hadn’t crossed my mind, but after reading this book of comic-strip style element characters, now I can’t summon up xenon or helium without a full, puffy top. Halogens like chlorine, meanwhile, have a cueball look, while other chemical groups share anything from punk rock spikes to buzz-cuts.

On the other hand, each unique element is also dressed up in anything from an apron to a lab coat to a business suit — or even a simple pair of white underwear — depending on their most common uses. The basic idea of the book is to put the elements in a real-life context of where we’re most likely to encounter them, their important properties, and their uses and threats to people individually or society in general.

A slim read at 200 pages, just over half of this space is given over to brief descriptions of each element in a standardized format. A brief paragraph illuminates a few of the more significant facts of each type of atom, perhaps a bit of its history or important uses. Some other basic data (density, atomic mass, etc.) and an epigram also accompany each profile (radium is the element that “bit the hand that fed it”, no doubt a reference to Marie and Pierre Curie who discovered it, then perished from radiation poisoning), but the centerpiece is always the anthropomorphic sketch.

Other parts of the text include brief sections on the most expensive commercially available elements, elements necessary to human health, and an argument for rare element conservation as part of an ecologically-sustainable future. But the book is never text-heavy, and can be read from start to finish in just a few hours.

The central conceit is cute; an original approach to connecting the reader with abstract yet critical components of our world. It doesn’t make memorizing the periodic table a breeze (what could and who would?), but it has resulted in some patterns sticking in my head better than before. The fold-out poster-sized table is a nice bonus, though educators might be careful of how they use it, or images from the book itself, both of which sometimes contain some cartoonish male nudity (the Japanese simply aren’t as uptight about that stuff as us).

All in all, it makes for a fun little coffee-table book for either the chemically-minded or the simply curious.

(No Starch Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

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