The Periodic Kingdom is a book that explores the Periodic Table of Elements (ie. chemicals) through the perspective of geography. I was initially attracted (pun not intended) to it partly because I’m a nerd for chemistry, but also because I’ve been sort of working on my own variant-approach to teaching chemistry, and I wanted to see what Atkins has to say.
P.W. Atkins is a professor of Physical Chemistry (the kind that deals with quantum mechanics, as opposed to organic or biochemistry, which deals more with life-based compounds) at the University of Oxford. Throughout the book, he clearly shows that he has both academic prowess and extensive teaching experience; it’s worth noting that simply because I’ve read many books on scientific topics where one or the other is lacking — it’s not often that you find both.
That said, I was a little disappointed with the book.
The metaphor of the Periodic Table as a continent, while carried throughout nearly the entire book, just doesn’t seem to be as useful as I had originally hoped. Perhaps for someone with no prior background in chemistry, taking a General Chemistry 100-level course for the first time, it may prove to be useful; but I found myself constantly having to over think things to follow the metaphor as he introduces new concepts.
For example – he refers to groups I and II (the first two columns on the far left including elements such as Sodium and Magnesium) as “the western desert”, and to the transition metals (that whole chunk in the center, including Cobalt, Iron, Gold, Silver, etc.) as “the isthmus”, and to the non-metals / metalloids on the far right (the organic compounds, noble gases, and halogens) as “the eastern rectangle”. The Actinide and Lanthanide seiries (both radioactive and synthetic elements) are referred to as “the peninsula”. I found it somewhat tedious to have to constantly translate in my head the regions to which he was referring; but again, someone new to chemistry, who wouldn’t have to reverse engineer it, would likely not have that challenge.
The geographic metaphor is taken only as far as geographic boundaries and features. He uses it to explain “mountainous regions” with regard to atomic radii, electronegativity, and other periodic traits, and in those contexts, it makes sense.
I think I was originally hoping that he would focus more on the “cultural” aspects of the various parts of the periodic kingdom. I have found, in my experience as both a tutor and Teaching Assistant, that personification of the elements makes them far more relatable; so some of my disappointment was from that lack of presence.
What he does well
Atkins does a terrific job of covering the background about the development of the Periodic Table. I definitely learned a lot of the very rich and colorful history about the discovery of the early elements (back in the day when Alchemy was the primary chemical discipline), as well as a history of nomenclature, of discoveries, and of the various revisions to the table, culminating in the Mendelevian model we use today.
Late in the book, Atkins drops the metaphor entirely when talking about electron shells, bonding, and configurations, presumably out of necessity. These are essential topics in any introductory chemistry text, but Atkins really shows his teaching chops in this particular area, weaving a well-assembled lesson about how compounds and molecules are formed and why.
His explanations about the formation of bonds (or as he refers to them “liaisons and alliances”) are particularly effective, covering them in great detail but not so much that they are either redundant or overly technical. Chemistry students looking to augment or temper their knowledge of general chemistry material will definitely find a friend in this portion.
I enjoyed the book. There weren’t any moments when it was painful or a struggle to read; I did not feel compelled to skip any chapters. It was quite informative and well-written with solid candor. My only real complaint about the book is simply that the premise felt like it could have been taken further; but that could just be personal preference.
One last caveat – this book is clearly targeted towards someone with a specific interest in either science trivia or chemistry; unlike previous scientific non-fiction I have reviewed (“A short history of nearly everything”, “Physics of the Impossible“, “Napoleon’s Buttons“), I don’t know that this book is as generally accessible. It’s not that it’s hard to read or boring, it’s just that the subject matter is somewhat esoteric, more along the lines of “Your Inner Fish” or “On the Origin of Species”)