Saturday, October 3, 2009

The 13th Element

The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus by John Emsley

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Cheap Sensationalism

The first hundred pages address the history of the alchemists and their attempts to make phosphorus, in a breathless recounting of professional jealousy and completing claims to have discovered…. Oh, sorry I dozed off for a moment there-- a method for its manufacture, mainly using vast quantities of human urine. Early medicinal claims have all been debunked. Well, that covers the first hundred pages.

It has some interesting anecdotes like the history of the Swedish match king, but these have no lasting bearing on the "story," and as I finished reading each anecdote, I couldn't help but thinking, so what?

The most interesting aspects of phosphorus were the ones that relate to daily life. For example the debate about the environmental damage allegedly caused by phosphorus in laundry detergent, and how subsequently it was discovered was that the culprits were the heavy metals, oils and insecticides that had killed the zooplankton that eat the algae blooms. I remember the hue and cry over phosphates, and then how the debate quietly faded away.

The book attempts to compelling but the closest it achieves is sensationalism, with graphic descriptions of the gruesome ailment phossy jaw, the horrors of the incendiary bombs that were dropped on Germany, tales of murder by phosphorus, and a look at how phosphorus might be implicated in what is known as spontaneous human combustion. All in all, The 13th Element left a bad taste ion my mouth… wait a minute, what is that taste? I've been poisoned! Arrrrgh…..

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