Book Review: Wonderful Life with the Elements

Bunpei Yorifuji. Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2012. 206 pages.

Elements. Whether we like it or not, we’re all composed of them. And it’s not just us–the entire universe is composed of elements–71% of it’s hydrogen, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. And yet what do we (by whom I mean non-technical adults) really know (or, more accurately, really retain) about these precious building blocks of life?

Probably not much. If you’re anything like me, you remember that the natural elements start at hydrogen and run all the way through uranium (#92 on the periodic table) with man-made elements after that. You remember that the elements get heavier as their atomic numbers increase, and that there are too many of them to memorize for long. Quick: what’s the atomic number of tellurium? See what I mean? wonderful life with the elements

That’s why a book like Wonderful Life with the Elements is so valuable. Naturally, it can be useful in helping grade-school kids better understand the elements, but if you’re an adult, you might want to have a copy of this around the house for your own benefit.

There are two ways to look at the book: as a narrative and as a reference. Let’s tackle the narrative first. Yorifuji starts with a quick explanation of the periodic table, during which much of what you’ve forgotten since high school chemistry may come flooding back. The next section, “Elements in the Living Room,” discusses some of the most abundant elements (that’s where I got my universe = 71% hydrogen fact from). Again, it might be stuff that you once knew, but it’s a good refresher. The following section, “the Super Periodic Table of the Elements,” introduces Yorifuji’s simple schema for drawing the elements, which gives them hairstyles, beardstyles, body types, and clothing based on their properties. By the time you get well into the periodic table (the next section), you might be able to guess that yttrium has industrial uses simply because it’s wearing a suit.

Following the periodic table, there’s another section that focuses on elements in the human body. It’s not always going to be of the most immediate practical use, but it will probably make you feel a little smarter.

This is a fun, quirky book. Are you going to get more information simply by googling “bismuth” and then reading the Wikipedia page? Maybe. But the drawings, combined with the sometimes-obscure facts about each element, make this book worth it.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. After lead (82), the elements appear two to a page, and after radium (88), they appear four to a page. I’d like to have seen one full page devoted to each element, and I don’t doubt that Yorifuji would be able to fill those pages.

All in all, recommended for those who are curious about the elements, or want an enjoyable refresher.

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.