Ball: The Ingredients

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Philip Ball, The Ingredients : A Guided Tour of the Elements. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002. 216 pages. Also published in a different format with identical text as The Elements : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004. 179 pages.

The theme of the book is: "What is stuff made of?" While he writes primarily about the chemical elements, Ball is willing to broaden his scope and consider the question metaphorically as well as literally.

The outcome is not so much a narrative exposition about the chemical elements as it is a collection of essays about topics having to do with elements. Already in his preface, the author announces his intention to avoid organizing his book in the accustomed way according to the periodic table of the elements. To demonstrate, here is the table of contents:

  1. Aristotle's Quartet: The Elements in Antiquity
  2. Revolution: How Oxygen Changed the World
  3. Gold: The Glorious and Accursed Element
  4. The Eightfold Path: Organizing the Elements
  5. The Atom Factories: Making New Elements
  6. The Chemical Brother: Why Isotopes are Useful
  7. For All Practical Purposes: Technologies of the Elements

It works exceptionally well, probably because Ball is an exceptionally good writer, with a deep but comfortable understanding of his subject. Taken as a whole, The Ingredients offers a great deal of insight about the chemical elements, the history of their discovery, their value to society, and even what it means to be an element.

For instance, the first chapter discusses the evolution of the idea of elements. The Greek and Medieval minds also thought of "elements" as the fundamental constituents of matter, but what they meant by that was something quite distant from what we mean when we moderns say the same. Appreciating that difference clarifies the modern concept and illuminates earlier thinking: alchemy may have been wrong, but not nearly so wrong and naive as it seems from the perspective of modern chemistry, which was itself largely an invention of the eighteenth century.

Ball's writing is fresh, crisp, and inviting; for me the book was a page-turner. By the end of it I had decided that one reason was his refreshing avoidance of the goofy metaphors to which so many science writers are prone. Ball demonstrates that clear and direct prose – written from a position of understanding and appreciation – can more than adequately convey complex scientific information and dispel confusion and inaccuracy.

The Ingredients is delightfully readable and informative. Here is a short excerpt for flavor:

Despite a tendency to overestimate the primacy of the four-element scheme [of classical Greek times, that the "elements" are air, earth, fire, and water] – there have been, as we have seen, many others – this idea goes some way towards explaining the longevity of Empedocles' elements. They fit, they accord with our experience. They distinguish different kinds of matter.

What this really means is that the classical elements are familiar representatives of the different physical states that matter can adopt. Earth represents not just soil or rock, but all solids. Water is the archetype of all liquids; air, of all gases and vapours. Fire is a strange one, for it is indeed a unique and striking phenomenon. Fire is actually a dancing plasma of molecules and molecular fragments, excited into a glowing state by heat. It is not a substance as such, but a variable combination of substances in a particular and unusual state caused by a chemical reaction. In experiential terms, fire is a perfect symbol of that other, intangible aspect of reality: light.

The ancients saw things this way too: that elements were types, not to be too closely identified with particular substances. When Plato speaks of water the elements, he does not mean the same thing as the water that flows in rivers. River water is a manifestation of elementary water, but so is molten lead. elementary water is "that which flows". Likewise, elementary earth is not just the stuff in the ground, but flesh, wood, metal.

Plato's elements can be interconverted because of the geometric commonalities of their "atoms". For Anaxagoras, all material substances are mixtures of all four elements, so one substance changes to another by virtue of the growth in proportion of one or more elements and the correpsonding diminution of the others. This view of matter as intimate blends of elements is central to the antiqueated elementary theories, and is one of the stark contrasts with the modern notion of an element as a fundamental substance that can be isolated and purified. [pp. 14-15]

-- Notes by JNS

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