I’ve always found Chemistry interesting, particularly in high school when I had the good fortune of having a Chemistry teacher who was not only really good looking, but a great teacher too. I studied it for a year at University and then moved on and haven’t really given the periodic table and its elements much thought since. This changed when the Wonderful Life with the Elements was delivered to me two weeks ago. It’s one of those books that aims to make science fun and, unlike many other attempts which turn out to be pretty lame, this actually succeeds in presenting the periodic table in a fresh, original and interesting manner.
Wonderful Life with the Elements is the brainchild of a Japanese artist, Bunpei Yorifuji, who has published a few other books in Japan and created some adverts for the Tokyo metro (which you can find by doing an image search for his name and “Do it at home”). His animation style for these adverts features simple, clean cartoon characters drawn in yellow, black and white. In a Wonderful Life with the Elements he has taken this technique and applied it to the periodic table by drawing each element as a cartoon character where every detail has some scientific significance. Elements that were discovered a long time ago have beards while more recent discoveries have dummies (pacifiers for those in America) in their mouths. Heavy elements are fat. Elements with lots of industrial uses wear suits while those that are man-made look like robots. He also adds amusing little touches to each element and it is obvious he took a lot of time and care in doing this and researching and then presenting the details about each of them. It really feels like the elements have individual personalities which is quite an achievement for what is often presented as rather boring and dry subject matter.
This book isn’t merely a collection of cartoon drawings — information is also included covering when and how the elements were discovered, what they are (or were) used for and other interesting or amusing pieces of trivia. There are also the more traditional facts like atomic number, symbol, position in the periodic table, melting and boiling points and density. Some elements get more detail than others depending on how well known and/or useful they are. My only real criticism of the book is that the elements in period 7 only get small drawings and a cursory description each. I’m not sure why they were singled out for this treatment. Did the author get bored towards the end? Was there lack of budget? Did he run out of time? Does he have a personal grudge against period 7? Considering that this period includes rather famous elements such as Uranium and Plutonium and that they get the same low level of detail as relative unknowns like Ununseptium and Darmstadtium this feels like a rather odd omission.
The main stars of the Wonderful Life with the Elements are the elements themselves but the introductory and closing chapters are worth reading too. The book starts off with an overview of the elements and which ones are found most commonly on our planet and in our living rooms before moving on to the periodic table itself and an explanation of what the various details on the cartoon drawings of the elements mean. The closing sections describe which elements are an important part of a human diet and what the effects of eating too little or too much of each of them are before wrapping up with a warning about the possibility of us running out of certain elements and what the negative impact of this could be. This is all written in an informal, humorous style that makes all these facts appear really interesting and, dare I say it, fun to read.
Wonderful Life with the Elements is a very enjoyable book and the author has done a great job of injecting some colour and personality into what many people would view as a rather dull topic. If I had had a book like this in high-school I think I would have found Chemistry interesting, even without the attractive teacher. It is worth pointing out that is isn’t a replacement for a Chemistry text book — it only touches the surface of the large body of theory that underpins the elements and the periodic table. However I would still wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone with even just a casual interest in the subject. The original presentation of this material and the amusing personal touches are fantastic and turn this book into a fun, easy read which isn’t something one can say about most books that deal with Chemistry.
Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book free of charge by the publisher for review purposes. They placed no restrictions on what I could say and left me to be as critical as I wanted so the above review is my own honest opinion."