Book Review: “Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified”

We’re surrounded by elements. In modern times, we have tripled our use of the elements, but we still fail to recognize their importance to our lives. Do you know which elements compose your laptop? Do you know why these elements are used or how they affect you? The periodic table is our number one source of information on the elements, but it does little to highlight the elements all around us. Some information is inferred from looking at it in a certain way. But these properties can be abstract and difficult to understand. Plus, the table is limited by its compact size. Bunpei Yorifuji, author of Wonderful Life with the Elements, recognizes these difficulties. As a celebrated Japanese artist, Yorifuji illustrates the periodic table in humorous cartoons that both show and explain important facts about the elements. Yorifuji then raises our awareness of the elements by showing their importance in our lives and making the knowledge more accessible to both chemists and non-chemists

Yorifuji begins with a personal encounter with helium – pure helium. He used it in an art project and decided it would be interesting to inhale it. He thought it would only cause a temporary change in the pitch of his voice – it did, but it also sucked all the oxygen from his lungs.  In a humorous cartoon rendition of the experience, Yorifuji explains how important it is for us to know about the elements we use because of necessity and the dangers they pose. As the introduction to this book, the story is funny and very convincing. He continues with a background on the composition of the universe and the elements present in our living rooms throughout time. I was surprised at the number of elements we use. We rarely think of everyday objects in terms of elements – and we’re surrounded by them.

The majority of the book breaks down the periodic table into its elements and their properties. Yorifuji transforms the elements into human characters with different combinations of hairstyles, clothing, age, and weight to represent their properties. Hair styles represent the families, or groups, on the periodic table – the elements of which share similar properties. He shows the elemental state of matter by drawing in legs (solids), puddles (liquids), and ghost tails (gases). Elements are fat or skinny corresponding to their weights. Age is represented by facial hair and binkies. Special properties are backgrounds or special clothing. The uses of each element are shown with a wardrobe: A plain white shirt shows versatility, whereas a lab coat shows a primary use in laboratories. And each property has an explanation of how he decided to draw them. The properties make perfect sense in the charts, but the fun doesn’t begin until you view the table in its entirety.  Each element has a different combination of these properties, which makes for a hilarious range of cartoon people.

Click for a closer view.  From: http://nostarch.com/wle

Each element is detailed in a page or two of description and comic drawings. Take hydrogen: He’s an old man with a ghost tail, dressed in a white tank top and a crown. In other words, hydrogen is one of the older known elements, exists as a gas, is versatile and doesn’t fit into any category (hence the crown). Or meet helium: He has a ghost tail and an afro, is clean shaven, and is dressed in a utility suit. So, he was discovered in the 19th century, exists as a gas, is used for special applications, and is part of the noble gas family. All of this information is easy to recognize in the cartoon versus inferring this information from an average periodic table.

Yorifuji doesn’t stop there. He explains the interactions between groups of elements by giving them team names – Au, Ag, and Cu come together as “The Three Sages of Wealth and Prosperity” – and grouping them as elements who play nice or pick fights. The harmful combos are grouped in their structures as acrobats. Yorifuji continues the book with a section on dietary minerals, how elements affect you and where to find them, and he concludes with a final section on the element crisis.

The element crisis is an appropriate last chapter. Yorifuji ends the book as he begins it, with a startling reality. He explains the challenge of finding rare metals and the issue of using up popular elements. In a clever cartoon, he shows us what we might lose if we overuse the elements: tools, computers, televisions, stainless steel, all of which are composed of “endangered” elements. It is this awareness that he is trying to raise in readers. He wants us to love the elements, love their uses, and show concern for the elements we may lose if we are not conscious of their rarity.

As a chemist, I have had to learn to use the periodic table the hard way. When I first picked up this book, I wasn’t sure how much it would help me, considering how much I knew of the periodic table. It came across to me as a fun interpretation: Who would have thought to make the periodic table into something like a comic book?  Yorifuji’s introduction with his helium encounter is what drew me in. Even though I work with elements, I rarely think of them outside of a lab setting. When I come home, I don’t consider what elements I’m using, coming into contact with, or eating. I don’t consider anyone outside of a lab as working with elements, at least not consciously. Wonderful Life with the Elements changed my perspective. First, the cartoons made me laugh and have helped me to remember properties more easily. When you look at the pictures, you know what each part represents. On a regular periodic table, you have to picture everything abstractly and remember which way to read it. The broader message Yorifuji delivers is an important one. We take the elements for granted because we don’t think about them. We just assume they’ll always be there in the shape of a computer, a phone, kitchen knives, and power sources. We don’t picture them running out. Yorifuji not only makes the periodic table visually appealing and easier to remember, he makes it a joy to learn about with an important message for chemists and non-chemists alike.

You can purchase Wonderful Life with the Elements at amazon.com.

Alexandra Aloia is a junior at Alvernia College, majoring in history and chemistry.

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