Monday, February 11, 2008

P.W. Atkins: The Periodic Kingdom

Anyone who assumes that a book about the periodic table of chemical elements would be boring seems pretty rational. But they also have probably not been exposed to The Science Masters Series.

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements by P.W. Atkins is from that series. It is a delightful little book (149 pages) written by an expert, for non-chemists. Not only does Atkins explain why the periodic table is arranged the way it is, he explains why the elements act with one another the way they do. And while he is at it, he describes some history of how different elements were discovered. We learn about electrical charges and sharing electrons. We learn why some elements join into useful molecules and others seem to avoid each other.

I recently re-read this book when my daughter started asking me some questions from her college chemistry class. Although I never took chemistry in college, I am after all, a father, and expected to know a multitude of things. Atkins helped me appear more knowledgeable than I really am. What more can you ask of an author?

So The Periodic Kingdom is an easy read, and can teach you something. I like that. In fact, I’ve enjoyed anything I’ve read from The Science Masters Series.

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 13, 2008

I was browsing Nate’s blog a few weeks ago, and I came across his review of The Periodic Kingdom, by P. W. Atkins. In contrast to Nate, I did take chemistry, both in high school and college, but as with many other things in life, I don’t remember much of it. There is something about forming molecules with electron-related chemical bonds that works in a very rational way, but I couldn’t remember the details.

So I went out to Amazon and bought a used copy of The Periodic Kingdom for $0.33 plus shipping (no risk there!), and I put the book high on my read list – and now I’ve read it.

This book is all I hoped for! I now recall the Periodic Table of the Elements, I understand something about the shells of electrons around the atomic cores, I understand how incomplete shells leave atoms ready to acquire or give up a few electrons, and that leads to a rudimentary understanding of how molecules are formed. And the history of how we got to this understanding is interesting too.

Hmm. Am I being nerdy here or what? I really found it interesting to refresh my understanding of this basic foundation of chemistry. The book served its purpose well, but I do have a couple critiques.

Atkins, a well-respected chemistry author, builds the book around a simple analogy. The Periodic Table of the Elements is referred to, obviously, as a kingdom. The kingdom has many regions, each corresponding to an element. As the narrative unfolds the kingdom and regions are treated as geographical locales, with eastern and western shores and varying elevations. Using this imaginary physical world, Atkins maps out a number of atomic properties such as atomic number, atomic weight, and size of atoms, where increasing and decreasing trends are shown with varying elevations for the regions. However…

As I read the book I frequently wondered if the analogy was useful. Could I not learn just as easily if Atkins called “regions” “elements” and “kingdom” “table”? I don’t know, but I won’t complain much, after all I did learn what I hoped to learn.

My other critique comes in the latter part of the book. After giving us the needed background, Atkins proceeds to describe the allocation of increasing numbers of electrons to s-, p-, d-, and f-orbitals as the atomic number of an element increases, something that is influenced by certain quantum effects. But as we move up the table, the order of filling orbitals gets confusing. I think Atkins could have taken us a little deeper into the quantum mechanics controlling all this. On the other hand, it’s obvious that a short book is not going to introduce us to all the complexities of such an important concept as the periodic table. I accepted the orbital assignments as described and moved on to improve my understanding of chemical bonds.

This book worked well for me, a good (if nerdy) read!

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