541: The Periodic Kingdom by P.W. Atkins

by Gerard


541.24: Atkins, P. W. The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements. New York: Basic Books, 1995. 149 pp. ISBN 0-465-07266-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 540: Chemistry
  • 541: Physical chemistry
  • 541.2: Theoretical chemistry
  • 541.24: Atomic structure

I’ve yet to read a book on science that was one giant metaphor. Normally, authors want to just educate the reader on a concept, flesh it out with rich histories and context, and then move on to the next thing. P.W. Atkins’s The Periodic Kingdom is a completely different beast altogether. He imagines the periodic table, on display in classrooms and science labs around the world, as a geographic map. The eastern borders house the nobility and the western shores are home to the most explosive elements. In between are the Metallic Desert, the southern island (transuranic elements), and the Eastern Rectangle (gaseous elements). And Atkins takes it upon himself to be the tour guide of this strange but rather organized kingdom.

The conceit of the book works until he gets to his real aim, which is to explain the atomic structure and explanation for how certain elements react with certain others. By giving the elements a context in this “kingdom,” he hopes to better educate the reader on chemical processes. The problem comes when he gets to electron orbits and energy states. While the orbital configurations are part of the organizational scheme of the periodic table, viewing it as a geographic region makes little sense at that point. The metaphor only works to a point, and then it becomes a standard science textbook. That being said, though, viewing the elements through Atkins’s lens is novel and worth a read. Chemistry amateurs will find new knowledge and veterans can maybe see their world with fresh eyes. All in all, a decent and interesting read.