Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Emsley: The 13th Element - Sordid Tale of Science and Alchemy

The 13th Element always reminds me of a hot mineral springs pool in winter. I first took this book by John Emsley (with several others) to a weekend at a spa, and devoured it with unseemly haste and occasional chuckles that brought frowns to the faces of others in the quiet room.

Surrounded by the mephitic steam of the soaking pools, I was immersed in this tale of the discovery and use of phosphorus for matches, weapons, murder and medicine. The least controversial exploitation of phosphorus (match heads) turns out to have had nationalist implications—even the Salvation Army was involved! This and other tales of the early Royal Society researches into the element prepared me to enjoy the fictional exploits in Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Phosphorus is part of nerve gas compounds from WWI, WWII—and Sarin. The author concludes, in part, "The chemistry of organophosphates presents us, not with the dichotomy of either good or evil, but with a spectrum which ranges from the essential (DNA) at one to the deadliest of agents (nerve gases) at the other."

It is altogether a fascinating read. (Mineral spa not required.)

Three science reviews include the following insight: Other reviewers have outlined in some detail the contents of this book but let me emphasize that the "science" never gets in the way of the narrative. Anyone who has even a passing interest in natural science should find this book an excellent read. Gerry Rising also has a useful review with a little more information than some may want before they've read the book.