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Book Review: Kit Chapman Superheavy

Related event: Superheavy

History, politics, particles, and the superheroes of the Periodic Table who’ve blown it apart!

This is a book of history, politics, particles and the superheroes of the Periodic Table, and why they may have blown it apart! Packed with detail, Superheavy is as rigorously researched as each of the superheavy elements themselves, with added drama and playful touches to bring an evolving story to a popular science audience. 

If you ever did chemistry at school, the chances are that The Periodic Table, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, peered down at you from a position of great importance on the laboratory wall, popped up inside the front cover of your text book and generally extolled importance and immoveability to be learnt, absorbed and relied upon. However, set aside the apparent absolutism of school science and pick up Superheavy and it’ll take you on a journey deep inside the periodic table’s past, its elements and its unknown edges. Expect responsibility and a touch of recklessness, plenty of politics, oh, and a midnight dash in a VW Beetle.

The chemical elements are the basic ingredients of the world. 118 elements have for the last 100 years been neatly laid out in clean-edged boxes, but others -perhaps another 50– are more ephemeral, and whilst they can be created in a lab they (probably) don’t naturally exist in the world. These are ‘chemistry’s ‘unicorns’ says Chapman, and ‘every isotope unlocks a little more of the universe’: they bring to the world a whole host of potential uses ranging from clean energy and medical techniques to do great good and the atomic bomb to do great harm. These superheavy elements last for only milliseconds or seconds and yet are rewriting the laws of atomic structure and threaten to break up the periodic table as we know it. What’s the inside story?

This is my first foray into chemistry since I took an A-level in the early 1990s, and from a simple baseline of knowledge of protons, neutrons and electrons, I followed the leading lights in nuclear chemistry through lyrically-described Narnian forests, bustling metropolises, metaphorical uncharted seas and their legendary island of stability, as well as concrete corridors and fluorescent-lit labs. 

Against a backdrop of twentieth century history, Chapman’s interwoven tale of researchers in radioactivity, chemists, physicists, engineers and inventors, offers a detailed walk-through the technology behind fission, fusion and the fortunes of these scientists. He takes the reader from a great science hub in San Francisco bay to a cold-war Russia, Sweden and Germany, and finally 21st century Japan, as these different countries lined up alongside one another for a seventy-five year ‘sports day’ in nuclear physics with a decathlon of associated events. From short sprints to endurance running and mad dashes to the finish line, each team employed their own tactics and techniques, whilst looking over their shoulder or up ahead at their competitors. And all, despite a deliberate direction, chased a short-lived, infinitessimally-small goal and an ever-changing finish line. 

These scientists worked with cutting edge guns capable of shooting specific isotopes, maths, chance, patterns and patience to discover new ‘superheavy’ elements’, a task akin to ‘Where’s Wally spotting’ in a mammoth field of moving figures. And yet spot ‘him’ they have many times over, painstakingly evidencing each new element, invisible materials measured with an invisible balance! These elements challenge the long-established rules and are changing the face of chemistry so that a rewrite of the periodic table, that chemist’s mainstay for 150 years, might become necessary.

Looking ahead into the future, theoretical chemistry gives us the same unknown horizons as astronomy on an unimaginably tiny scale, imagine teeny-tiny solar systems, orbiting electrons, the conundrum of doughnut-shaped nuclei and black holes, and unknown edges, and untold possibilities. And we are perhaps only at the start line, suggests Chapman. I look forward to the sequel!

History, politics, particles, and the superheroes of the Periodic Table who’ve blown it apart!

This is a book of history, politics, particles and the superheroes of the Periodic Table, and why they may have blown it apart! Packed with detail, Superheavy is as rigorously researched as each of the superheavy elements themselves, with added drama and playful touches to bring an evolving story to a popular science audience. 

If you ever did chemistry at school, the chances are that The Periodic Table, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, peered down at you from a position of great importance on the laboratory wall, popped up inside the front cover of your text book and generally extolled importance and immoveability to be learnt, absorbed and relied upon. However, set aside the apparent absolutism of school science and pick up Superheavy and it’ll take you on a journey deep inside the periodic table’s past, its elements and its unknown edges. Expect responsibility and a touch of recklessness, plenty of politics, oh, and a midnight dash in a VW Beetle.

The chemical elements are the basic ingredients of the world. 118 elements have for the last 100 years been neatly laid out in clean-edged boxes, but others -perhaps another 50– are more ephemeral, and whilst they can be created in a lab they (probably) don’t naturally exist in the world. These are ‘chemistry’s ‘unicorns’ says Chapman, and ‘every isotope unlocks a little more of the universe’: they bring to the world a whole host of potential uses ranging from clean energy and medical techniques to do great good and the atomic bomb to do great harm. These superheavy elements last for only milliseconds or seconds and yet are rewriting the laws of atomic structure and threaten to break up the periodic table as we know it. What’s the inside story?

This is my first foray into chemistry since I took an A-level in the early 1990s, and from a simple baseline of knowledge of protons, neutrons and electrons, I followed the leading lights in nuclear chemistry through lyrically-described Narnian forests, bustling metropolises, metaphorical uncharted seas and their legendary island of stability, as well as concrete corridors and fluorescent-lit labs. 

Against a backdrop of twentieth century history, Chapman’s interwoven tale of researchers in radioactivity, chemists, physicists, engineers and inventors, offers a detailed walk-through the technology behind fission, fusion and the fortunes of these scientists. He takes the reader from a great science hub in San Francisco bay to a cold-war Russia, Sweden and Germany, and finally 21st century Japan, as these different countries lined up alongside one another for a seventy-five year ‘sports day’ in nuclear physics with a decathlon of associated events. From short sprints to endurance running and mad dashes to the finish line, each team employed their own tactics and techniques, whilst looking over their shoulder or up ahead at their competitors. And all, despite a deliberate direction, chased a short-lived, infinitessimally-small goal and an ever-changing finish line. 

These scientists worked with cutting edge guns capable of shooting specific isotopes, maths, chance, patterns and patience to discover new ‘superheavy’ elements’, a task akin to ‘Where’s Wally spotting’ in a mammoth field of moving figures. And yet spot ‘him’ they have many times over, painstakingly evidencing each new element, invisible materials measured with an invisible balance! These elements challenge the long-established rules and are changing the face of chemistry so that a rewrite of the periodic table, that chemist’s mainstay for 150 years, might become necessary.

Looking ahead into the future, theoretical chemistry gives us the same unknown horizons as astronomy on an unimaginably tiny scale, imagine teeny-tiny solar systems, orbiting electrons, the conundrum of doughnut-shaped nuclei and black holes, and unknown edges, and untold possibilities. And we are perhaps only at the start line, suggests Chapman. I look forward to the sequel!

 

Esther Lafferty, Communications Officer, IF Oxford

Amazon Vine Reviewer

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