Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Review: Seven Elements That Have Changed The World, by John Browne

It's slightly unusual for me to read a science book, but this seemed fairly interesting. It looks at, unsurprisingly, seven elements (iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon) and their impact on the world. The author, John Browne, was a bigwig with BP.

Each element gets its own chapter, which progresses more or less in chronological order of use (both within chapters and between them, so silicon, being the most 'modern' element is naturally last). There's an interesting mix of history, economics and chemistry.

I particularly found the gold and silver chapters interesting (especially the negative spiral of Bunker Hunt's enormous hoard of silver), but carbon dragged a little.

As someone born in the first generation to really have computer games, mobile phones and the internet it was also interesting to read about the hopes for uranium, with nuclear-powered cars and trains anticipated but never achieved.

I do feel certain bits were missed that could have been included. For example, Henry Ford gets a mention (fair enough), but Benz and Daimler do not. There was an interesting piece about glass-making in Venice and telescopes, but glass and its magnifying powers also had a huge impact on chemistry and biology. The ability to zoom in allowed for clearer images of very small things, and glass being chemically neutral enabled scientists to use it to experiment on other things, but neither of these aspects was referred to.

The author makes use of his own personal experience of and interest in various related matters. This is a double-edged sword. The Venice glass-making piece was worth reading, but a little more science and a little less personal interest would have made the book better.

I was also mildly amused to read in the conclusion the author criticise those who pollute [counting carbon dioxide as pollution], given he was a bigwig with BP. I'm not a green but that's a bit rich. On a similar note, too many of the photos were the author with a politician/businessman/scientist instead of relevant to the subject.

There was a lot of genuinely interesting stuff in the book, and I did enjoy reading it. More focus on the subject matter and less on the author would have improved it.


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