In this age of ever-present data visualization, let’s not forget one of the earliest, prettiest, and most enduring: The Periodic Table of the Elements. Devised by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, it has both genius and simplicity on its side. The 118 known elements are laid out in a table in order of their atomic weight and grouped by chemical properties, which are represented by colors. With its elegant grid, its staggered mix’n’match hues, and those enigmatic abbreviations, the Periodic Table is self-contained and at the same time something of a template for the literary unconscious. It evokes a keyboard, or Scrabble game, or secret code, lending itself to all sorts of taxonomic play—the Periodic Table of Typefaces, the Periodic Table of Storytelling, and in the mindbogglingly meta-meta department, a Periodic Table of Visualization Methods.
Even though it’s as hard as science gets, the Periodic Table is anything but dry. Here are three very different books, each one riffing in its own very particular way, arranged—like the table itself—from lightest to heaviest.
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Although this is in many ways a traditional novel of a hapless 30-something heroine, it also hosts a grab bag of Big Ideas. Indeed, a lot of Meg Carpenter’s problems come from trying to move forward in her life in spite of a blizzard of abstract thought that threatens to crowd out actual motion. Some of this is fairly traditional stuff: Zen koans, post-structural theory, philosophical dialogues, and Russian writers. Then again, some of it is downright wacky. Much of the story is driven by a mysterious book about resurrection, and the hypothesis that we’re all living in a staging area in order to perfect ourselves, over and over, until we become immortal. And all this keys into another interesting concept, formulated by Meg’s boyfriend’s OCD-suffering brother Josh: The Periodic Table of Elemental Spirits. The idea here is that the aspects of personality can be broken down into elements, like all matter, and the closer someone gets to the pure state of immortality the further his personality is distilled down to one element or another. Of course it’s more complicated than that—for instance, Josh explains how
interactions with people [are] spiritual reactions or explosions, just like chemical reactions. Tragic interactions are interesting because they lead to the smashing up of these compounds, and the release of energy, just as Nietzsche said. And so it goes, on through time, as some higher spirits are distilled by life, and some made even more complex.
Well no, I don’t pretend to understand it. But it’s a weirdly catchy idea, and as far as I’m concerned every bit as good as Meyers-Briggs.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
No left-field theories here—this book is straight-up Periodic Table gossip, and I don’t use the term lightly. Kean is a correspondent for Science Magazine, and though his tales of the elements and their discoveries are backed with hard facts his tone slips easily into the anecdotal, as if he’s giving us the down low on a cast of friends and neighbors behind their backs. Not only individual characteristics but family trees and supporting characters—that is, chemists—come into play. But Kean reserves his greatest delight for the quirky leading characters themselves. Consider mercury, which first caught his eye when he was a boy suffering strep throat and breaking thermometers accidentally-on-purpose:
I’m from the Great Plains and had learned in history class that Lewis and Clark had trekked through South Dakota and the rest of the Louisiana Territory with a microscope, compasses, sextants, three mercury thermometers, and other instruments. What I didn’t know at first is that they also carried with them six hundred mercury laxatives, each four times the size of an aspirin. The laxatives were called Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, after Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a medical hero for bravely staying in Philadelphia during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793…. As a handy side effect, Dr. Rush’s pills have enabled modern archaeologists to track down campsites used by the explorers. With the weird food and questionable water they encountered in the wild, someone in their party was always queasy, and to this day, mercury deposits dot the soil many places where the gang dug a latrine, perhaps after one of Dr. Rush’s “Thunder-clappers” had worked a little too well.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
I don’t think it gets more elemental than this. A chemist, a poet, an Italian Jew, Levi spent most of 1944 interned in Auschwitz. His memoir If This is a Man tells his story of survival during those 11 months, but The Periodic Table brackets that time and distills the process of storytelling into something else entirely. In a series of fictional and autobiographical reflections, arranged in 21 chapters each named for an element, he gives us an almost cubist version of the truth broken down into facets. Traditional narrative structure is mostly stripped away here, and the chapters don’t immediately correlate. But his choice of metaphor reveals itself to be correct: these are fundamental, basal tales. Levi survived Auschwitz by working as a chemist in the I.G. Farben laboratory, and chemistry—distillation in all sorts of forms—is everywhere in his account. This is not an easy book to wrap your brain around, nor should it be. From “Potassium”:
I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points: the chemist’s trade consists in good part of being aware of these differences, knowing them close up and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.
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