Wonderful Life with the Elements: Getting personal with the periodic table

In Bunpei Yorifuji’s new book, Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified science comes alive as elements get personalities and become a lot more fun.

Many of us years ago memorized the periodic table, names, abbreviations, atomic numbers, periods, and families. But for whatever of it you even remember, do you have any idea what most of them do? Are used for? Where they’re found, and what they’re like?

You may not even realize you care, but in adorable two-color illustrations with clever writing, it’s hard not to.

Yorifuji writes in the preface, “We’re not usually aware of the elements in our daily lives. We don’t look at a desk and instantly think, ‘Carbon!'” And so with this book, he makes you look harder at the elements you encounter every day, through sections with titles like “Elements in the living room” and “How to eat the elements.” You might not remember everything from high school science class, but you’ll definitely look at your spinach differently.

If you’ve visited Tokyo in the last few years, you may be familiar with Yorifuji’s “Do It At Home” subway campaign. With a similar illustration style, he shows things like where you find potassium and what happens if you don’t have enough. You find out what Indium is and where it comes from. You learn to think o felements as clothing depending on their use–vital minerals wear only underwear “to show off their healthy physique,” while man-made elements wear robot suits.

The illustrations also capture the age and other qualities of the elements. Those discovered long ago are old and bearded, while one discovered in the 20th century might be sucking a pacifier. Gases float like spirits with wispy tails, while solid elements have legs. Those found as liquids stand on puddle-bottomed bases. (Bromine’s liquid-y lower half also releases a gassy fart.) In case you forget, the inner flaps of the dust jacket are legends to the looks of the elements. The zinc family has a spiky hairdo, the nitrogen family a mohawk. Heavy elements are… well, heavy characters, and the light ones look downright malnourished. Somebody get beryllium a snack!

Krypton flies away with Superman. Cadmium squeezes a tube of yellow paint. Some of the elements team up to do more evil together than they could do alone, when they become groups like sarin or potassium cyanide. Others come together to be like the Super Friends of the elements, creating semiconductors and rugged, heat-resistant magnets.

Most of the elements get great nicknames. Praseodynium is “The Flaming Yellow Magician.” Radon, “The Chubby Bathing Beauty” because of its weight and being found in hot springs.

The book also includes this poster of the periodic table with the book’s illustrations.

When you slide the dust jacket off, pieces of the art are repeated, including Superman front and center. (It’s also how I realized that elements 17-19 spell ClArK!) A final, delightful touch is the inclusion of an attached ribbon bookmark.

This book would make a great gift for any aspiring young scientist or even an adult who loves to learn. Even if you got high marks in every science class, I promise you’ll learn something new. And as the last page assures us, “In the future, everyone will be a scientist.”

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I received a copy of this book for review.

By day, Ruth works to make open source software communities better. The rest of the time, she makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray sewing pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant.