Most people wouldn’t describe the periodic table of elements as gripping. But Sam Kean makes it just that in his book, The Disappearing Spoon.
The periodic table is, finally, an anthropological marvel, a human artifact that reflects all of the wonderful, artful and ugly aspects of human beings and how we interact with the physical world — the history of our species written in a compact and elegant script. It deserves study on each of these levels, starting with the most elementary, and moving gradually upward in complexity. Beyond just being entertaining the tales of the periodic table, provide a way of understanding it that never appears in textbooks or lab manuals.
We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, love, and even some science.
The ghost at this chemical feast is Primo Levi's, The Periodic Table. Kean writes as a curious and benign enthusiast; Levi wrote as a professional chemist whose life was probably saved by his skill. Levi's book is an autobiography in which certain chemical elements were bound up with cruxes in his life. Working in the lab at Auschwitz, he found a store of cerium, which he whittled down to make cigarette lighter flints: life-saving currency in the camp's black market.
With the earth crisis upon us and the stain of carbon's insidious effect on climate ever growing, we can be sure that understanding chemistry is going to be just as vital for our collective future as it was for Levi's personal survival. Read both these books because time has come when a working knowledge of the elements should become "the great and frequent business of the human mind".