The Elements: A Visual History of Their Discovery (Hardcover)

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From water, air, and fire to tennessine and oganesson, celebrated science writer Philip Ball leads us through the full sweep of the field of chemistry in this exquisitely illustrated history of the elements.
The Elements is a stunning visual journey through the discovery of the chemical building blocks of our universe. By piecing together the history of the periodic table, Ball explores not only how we have come to understand what everything is made of, but also how chemistry developed into a modern science. Ball groups the elements into chronological eras of discovery, covering seven millennia from the first known to the last named. As he moves from prehistory and classical antiquity to the age of atomic bombs and particle accelerators, Ball highlights images and stories from around the world and sheds needed light on those who struggled for their ideas to gain inclusion. By also featuring some elements that aren’t true elements but were long thought to be—from the foundational prote hyle and heavenly aetherof the ancient Greeks to more recent false elements like phlogiston and caloric—The Elements boldly tells the full history of the central science of chemistry.

About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including H2O: A Biography of Water and The Music Instinct. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also a presenter of Science Stories, the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He lives in London.

Praise For…

"One of the grandest rewards of the scientific perspective is that it allows us to view the familiar world in fresh and unfamiliar ways. . . . The Elements breaks physical reality down into its smallest cohesive parts, as have many other books about the periodic table. What is unusual here is the way this book builds the story back up. Ball, who originally trained as a chemist, plunges deep into the history of the elements, dividing it into eight eras, each defined by distinctive notions of what it means for a substance to be fundamental. . . . Today, the periodic table is still expanding, as researchers synthesize heavier and heavier atomic nuclei. But even the well-known elements remain in flux, changing with each shift in our scientific thinking. The book’s illustrations, meticulously researched and artfully presented, drive home the point. A gold-platinum mask, forged by an unknown pre-Columbian artist some 2,500 years ago, demonstrates an advanced understanding of alloys, but it stares out of the page with an almost alien visage."
— American Scientist

"In this fascinating visual history of the elements, Ball spans over 3,000 years of scientific discovery from the classical era of Plato to the present day. Each element and story behind their discovery has been told in detail with the use of engaging images including scientific firsts in photography, as well as interesting artifacts and some beautiful historical drawings. More than this, the book is virtually a history of scientific discovery itself."
— BBC Science Focus

"Using some two hundred images, Ball describes how we discovered the building blocks of the universe—including some fake elements like phlogiston."
— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Ball has once again produced a terrific book, one that presents a tremendous amount of the history of chemistry in a manner that is engagingly written, beautifully illustrated, and conscientious about avoiding the usual traps of popular science: triumphalism, a Eurocentric and male bias, and a reliance on just-so stories that are inadequately supported by the evidence. I cannot think of another popular history of chemistry I have so enjoyed reading.”
— Michael D. Gordin, author of "On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience"
Product Details
ISBN: 9780226775951
ISBN-10: 022677595X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: September 27th, 2021
Pages: 224