March 1, 2006

Learning about the elements

One of things I’ve always enjoyed most about CRC handbook of chemistry and physics is the section on the elements. Today, in an email newsletter, I learned about a book that sounds even better.

In a recent story on the Planet Analog site, Strategies for minimizing resistor-generated noise” (, the author briefly discussed the construction and materials of thick-film resistors, referring to the use of ruthenium oxide. His mention of that element and its oxide reminded me that we are so used to hearing about silicon and a few other key elements (gallium, gold, copper, and aluminum, among them) that it’s easy to forget how much of our technology depends on relatively small amounts of pure materials, many of which are fairly rare.

With my interest kindled, I wanted to learn a little bit more about ruthenium. Rather than look to an inconsistent and perhaps questionable source such as Wikipedia, I instead turned to one of the most interesting and useful books I have in my personal library. Nature’s Building Blocks” by John Emsley is literally an A through Z (actinium through zirconium) tour through each element, with between four and eight pages devoted to each. For each element, he discusses its history and discovery (and mistakes along the way); economic use, biological factors, environmental factors, estimated amount on earth, ease of availability, and many other fascinating factors. In a consistent and highly readable format, Emsley really makes clear how vital and unique each of these elements is, and why. He also has chapters on topics such as the history of the development of the periodic table; it did not come quickly or easily to Mendeleyev and the others who searched for an underlying structure for the elements they had identified.

You might suppose that this book is dry and dull, suitable only as a reference book for geeks. Wrong! Not only is it clear that the author is quite knowledgeable, it is obvious he has put countless hours into the research and writing, and produced a technically useful book that is also a great read. Strange as it may seem, you can read go this book element by element, as you would read through any interesting book.

Although the facts (and trivia) you’ll get from this book won’t be the talking points or anecdotes you’ll want to share at your next company picnic, it’s worth a read for the appreciation it will give you of how a diverse set of basic elements are vital to our silicon-based systems. … Bill Schweber, Site Editor, Planet Analog

Added to my book-wishlist-wiki!

Update: The CRC section on the elements is available online!


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