Atkins: The Periodic Kingdom

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P.W. Atkins, The Periodic Kingdom : A Journey in the Land of the Chemical Elements. New York : Basic Books, 1995. ix + 161 pages with "Further Reading" and index; illustrated.

I have an admission: this book confused me. No, I don't mean the text was confusing, as such—Atkins writes clearly enough to see his meaning. Rather, I don't see what audience he may have had in mind for the book. In fact, I don't think he had his proposed audience clearly in mind and the book suffers markedly for it.

Atkins' stated goal is to introduce the periodic table of the elements to scientific novices. From the beginning he adopts a metaphor for the periodic table, speaking of it as a "kingdom", a geographical location that one can fly over, look down on, or explore by foot. The periodic kingdom has regions corresponding to each element's square, I guess. There are zones in the kingdom that correspond to the elemental periods. Sometimes there are hills whose height represent the mass of each element; at other times there are hills that represent chemical valence. Often he chooses to refer to the northeast or southwest corner of the kingdom, or to the island off to the south (the Lanthanides), and other such conceits.

Atkins insists on laboriously developing this metaphor for at least the first half of the book, stretching it way beyond its imaginable utility as an aid to comprehension, and continues to refer to it for the rest of the book. When one is trying to keep in mind all the interesting facts that he introduces about elements or groups of elements, it hardly helps that one must also keep in mind all the details of the overstuffed metaphor to try to decode what he's saying.

In this chapter [Chapter 3: Physical Geography], we shall explore the ghostly secondary images of the landscape, where the changes in various properties are depicted as changes in altitude. As this is in any case an imaginary kingdom, a land of chemists' dreams, there need be no constraint on its portrayal except truth, and to the mind's eye the terrain may rise and fall according to the features we seek to portray. We have already seen an example of this dreamlike modulation of the landscape in relation to the rise and fall of chemical activity, where a steep eastern escarpment plunges down from the plains inhabited by the halogens to the littoral of the noble gases. Earlier we also invoked altitude when we depicted the northern shore as quite different in physical and chemical character from the southerly uplands. There was nothing quantitative in the depiction; it was simply evocative symbolism. now, though, we intend to depict actual numbers obtained by well-defined physical measurements. The altitude and depth of the of imaginary landscape is now much more real, though not an actual altitude or depth. [pp. 29—30]

It's all just too precious. This is no way to treat the beginner who is coming to the periodic table as a relative novice. Keeping track of it all really requires quite a bit of knowledge of the arrangement of the periodic table, but then that amount of necessary familiarity is not consonant with the relatively elementary level of information that Atkins chose to present.

It may not be all Atkins' fault. As I read I repeatedly made notes wondering why the endpapers of this hardcover edition did not have a periodic table printed there, since constant reference was made to it. Wouldn't this be typical? Indeed it would, and I finally found the endpaper image printed after the index, a fact not mentioned anywhere in the book. Not a help to the reader. Late in the text I found a reference, written by the author in a caption to a figure, mentioning the periodic table as "printed in the endpapers", so perhaps it was the publisher at fault, a real disservice for readers especially for a series called "Science Masters" whose motto is "At last: your chance to attain science literacy straight from the Science Masters."

It is a puzzlement to be sure. Atkins is a dexterous writer of science for nonspecialists as I know from reading another of his books. His writing in this book is graceful and he offers some fascinating insights, as one might expect from such an experienced chemist, but the book as a whole seems to serve no useful purpose.

I can't really recommend the book, mostly because I don't know who could enjoy reading it, or benefit from it, without becoming irritated by it.

-- Notes by JNS

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