It’s a Wonderful Life With the Elements



I never was any good at chemistry. My dad has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, so I always told my friends and teachers that I felt fluency in a subject matter must always skip a generation. And in my case, it didn’t just skip… it leaped and then did a somersault backflip. I just didn’t get it. Atomic numbers, electron dot models, balancing equations… argh. I really did try. Honest. My college buddies will confirm that when I got my B in Chemistry I (with a generous cutting of slack by the professor), they actually heard my whoops of joy ring out on the campus. And I don’t even remember Chemistry II… I believe that my brain has blocked that entire experience. I don’t remember my grade, who taught the class, what we learned, or how I even passed.

This difficulty with chemistry has followed me my entire life. My dad left retirement (as a Senior Chemist) and went back to the workforce when asked by a local junior college if he’d like to teach part-time. I’ve received a number of college-level chemistry textbooks over the last few years from him as he attempted to find a way to reach out to his chemistry-challenged son. I even cracked a couple and tried to go over them again. A fog of war descended once again, and I’d finish a chapter wondering what I’d just read.

I want to enjoy the subject. I really do. Chemistry is life, right? We’re all dependent upon chemical reactions in our body working correctly, and then there’s the whole food-to-energy thing. There’s a reaction happening in my car’s engine, and I look up at the stars and think about all the interesting stuff happening out there and especially all those asteroids full of precious metals that await harvesting.

While I’ve given up on ever understanding chemistry at my dad’s level, I can still appreciate the beauty of the Periodic Table. There’s logic there… and structure. I can appreciate those elements just from a DIYer’s point of view… all those building blocks and all the ways they can come together to make stuff. I don’t understand why lutetium (called the Royal Element) costs (per gram) more than gold, silver, and platinum combined, and find it fascinating that it even exists. Isn’t it also cool how cesium is our basis for the definition of the length of one second? And a single gram of thallium will kill you (if ingested) but doctors use it all the time in isotope form to inject into our bloodstreams for medical testing. Fun stuff.

I’m a reader and collector of odd books, so I’m sharing with you some of the fun facts that I’ve recently read in the new book from No Starch called Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified. It’s written and illustrated by Japanese author Bunpei Yorifuji.

I won’t go so far as to say this book might have made a difference in my chemistry grade back when. And I’m certain it would not have swayed me to consider any kind of career that involved chemistry. But it’s one of the most entertaining and interesting books I’ve ever read — on any subject! Given that, the fact that it’s all about the Periodic Table should tell you something.

single elementsingle element

Yorifuji has written and illustrated a book that uses some unusual methods for displaying information. Elements are represented as small drawings of a human being with differences in hair style, body weight, clothing, and more. These characteristics are used throughout the book as each element is discussed. Take, for example, the atomic weights of the elements: The book has three different body sizes used — Light, Medium, and Heavy. The states of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) are demonstrated with the human figure having legs (solid), or a melted bottom half (liquid), or a ghost-like appearance (gas). Facial details can provide information on rough dates of discovery. A pacifier in the mouth means the element was discovered in the 20th century, a clean-shaven adult face represents the 19th century, a short goatee represents the 18th century, and a full beard represents an Ancient discovery time period. (Details on exact years and weights and such are provided in the actual text for each element, but the visuals help to lend a personality to an element. Hair styles are used to group some elements (the zinc family has a spikey haircut, for example) while clothing worn represents a typical use for an element (jeans and t-shirt represent multipurpose elements while a suit stands in for industrial uses and a robot shell means a man-made element).

Element Element

The book relies much more on graphics elements than text, so you’ll find yourself flipping through the early part of the book that deals with visual representations of things such as the Earth’s crust, the Sun’s makeup, and even the entire Universe’s percentage breakdown. (I didn’t know that 71% of the universe is made up of hydrogen but I guess it makes sense with all the stars and nebulas and such!)

The book continues with a short bit of history — different time periods are drawn with only those elements that were in use at the time. Medieval times, for example, shows me that they were aware of plaster, ceramics, and much more. Chemical symbols are all over the page to indicate which elements or compounds were being used to make weapons, money, cloth, and more.

The real power of the book, however, exists in the latter half of the book. This is when individual elements are given entire pages with text and lots of images to hammer down uses, discoveries, and other relevant facts. There’s a lot of humor here, too… facts are often added that provide a bit of funny history or something quirky to think about when reading about an element (or elements) we all tend to take for granted.

two elementstwo elements

The book closes with a short section on the element crisis — which ones are in short supply or difficult to obtain. Images show just how certain rare elements are used and a warning is given about our dependency on some and our inability to synthesize others.

It’s a cute little book. The colors are earthy tones and the fonts used are easy on the eyes. Just about everything in the book is related to making information easy to absorb and, as much as possible, understandable in a visual manner. Text is provided, but it’s there to support the information provided by the graphics, not the other way around.

It’s an eye-catching book, and sure to delight anyone interested in chemistry. Teachers could easily find a way to integrate this book into a classroom with its easy to understand images. Young kids could easily recreate the haircuts, clothing, and other details to represent an assigned element for a report. It’s definitely a unique method for presenting the Periodic Table, and even with my chemistry-intolerant brain I was able to make it all the way through the book.


One final thing — there’s a small fold-out poster in the back of the book that takes our traditional Periodic Table and turns it on its head by using the small cartoon images as the primary feature instead of the typical One/Two-letter abbreviations. If you have a solid understanding of Yorifuji’s use of hair and clothing styles and body shapes and other details, you can easily start recalling minor details about the basics of most elements. It’s not going to get you an A on a chemistry test, but it might give those of you needing to memorize the elements (shudder) a little memory jog/trick to make the process easier and/or faster.

Note: I’d like to thank Jessica at No Starch for providing me with a review copy of Wonderful Life with the Elements.

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