Our names for different substances and our understanding of their fundamental constituents are inextricably entwined. In exploring how what we now refer to as the chemical elements received their names, and how those names have changed throughout history, Peter Wothers’s latest book also offers an insight into the evolution of our understanding of the nature of matter itself. From the original concepts of materials being constituted of the four ‘elements’ earth, fire, water and air; via the alchemical associations of the seven ‘true’ metals with the seven known planets and the 18th century Phlogiston theory; and ending with our modern understanding of atomic and subatomic structure, the book provides a tour through humanity’s developing awareness of what made up the materials around us. This is not a straightforward journey either. It is full of dead ends, detours and conflicting ideas, but equally littered with examples of rigorous and arduous investigations, and euphoric revelations of new understanding – such as Humphry Davy ‘bounding round the room in ecstatic delight’ on first seeing metallic potassium revealed by electrolysis. I was fortunate enough to be taught by Wothers as an undergraduate, and am familiar with his multiple textbooks, but this is his first book aimed at a more general audience. It is immediately clear that a phenomenal amount of research has gone into it. The author’s own passion for chemistry’s history is evident, through references to a huge variety of (al)chemical texts – often consulting multiple editions and translations in different languages to reveal how ideas were accepted (or not) and changed over time. Many of the images have been reproduced from works in Wothers’s own extensive collection. The book is well paced and clearly organised, and definitely accessible to chemists and non-chemists alike. That said, it deliberately preserves quotations with their original spellings and language (with translations as required). This does mean the reader needs their wits about them, and (while not absolutely necessary) a little knowledge of French, German and Latin is certainly helpful. However, that decision lends an extra dimension to the book. As it traverses history, the language in the quotations tracks alongside the story, starting out almost alien and slowly converging into a more modern and familiar style. The rich tapestry of overlapping and interconnected stories means that any reader will come away with renewed appreciation of the art and artifice of our chemistry. This book features in our book club podcast, which you can listen to here. TopicsArtsBooksCulture and peopleHistoryInternational year of the periodic tableperiodic table Related articlesPodcastTerephthalic acid2020-01-24T15:30:00ZOnce thought of as an interesting – but useless – turpentine derivative, this oddly-named acid became the precursor to one of the world’s most widely used plasticsNewsResearchers love their jobs but toxic competition and publishing pressures take their toll2020-01-23T09:30:00ZLargest survey of its kind finds research culture is struggling – results that surprise fewOpinionScience can’t fix Whitehall on its own2020-01-21T14:30:00ZThere seems to be a genuine effort to put science at the heart of the UK’s government but this comes with risks as well as rewards More ReviewReviewThe Life Scientific: Inventors2020-01-17T09:30:00ZFrom the geneticist who cloned Dolly the sheep to the inventor of the battery bag, this book delves into the lives and ambitions of Britain’s trailblazing scientistsReviewScience in Moscow: Memorials of a Research Empire2020-01-10T09:30:00ZA book cataloguing the monuments to Russia’s scientific pastReviewCook, Taste, Learn: How the Evolution of Science Transformed the Art of Cooking2019-12-16T14:29:00Z A tour of the history and science behind the art of cooking, and treasure trove of of interesting facts for chefs and chemists alike SubscribeAdvertiseTopicsIssuesContributors Our mission News and events Campaigns Awards and funding Global challenges Support our work © Royal Society of Chemistry Registered charity number: 207890 Site powered by Webvision Cloud Validate Accessibility