Seven elements that have changed the world by John Browne
Hachette. Pages: xvii+279. Price: Rs. 499/-
So far, we have been hearing of the basic elements that either constitute life or are providers of various types of energies, including life force. The number of such elements is either four or five, depending upon the philosophy text you are consulting. For example, in Hindu philosophy, there are five elements, viz., earth, water, fire, air and the void or ether; the Chinese have a different list of elements, which indicate different types of energy, viz., fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Similarly, other cultures have their traditional take on elements and energies. These were formulated over a period of time through observation of various natural phenomena, tempered with inherent cultural beliefs. However, sometime during the medieval ages, a more scientific approach to observing and classifying elements began. Through various experiments and observations, chemical elements were identified, which led to the formulation of a number of mixtures and innovations for various uses in industry, economy etc.
However, Browne goes a step further. He decides to identify those elements that have qualitatively transformed human life. He has come up with seven. Why seven? His answer is not exactly scientific, but more tradition-centric, viz., “The number seven has always held a central place in myth, music and literature. The world was created in seven days; there are seven notes in the diatonic scale; and, according to Shakespeare, there are seven ages of man… so I asked myself: which of the seven chemical elements help us best to understand our world and how it came to be?” He also explains the process adopted for identification of the elements for this book, and gives reasons for preferring one to the other.
Browne identifies iron, the “father of steel”, as intricately associated with the Industrial Revolution, and the mainstay of today’s energy infrastructure. Carbon is proving to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is the source of energy in the form of coal as well as various hydrocarbon products and, on the other hand, a pollutant that may eventually asphyxiate the planet. Gold, in itself, is an asset that everybody wants to possess as security against penury. Its lure triggered off long and risky sea voyages and bloody wars. It has remained, for long, the mainstay of various state economies. However, the book does not focus much on gold’s uses in industry, medicine, computers and electronics etc. Silver, among other things, was vital for photography and hence cinema. Now, it is silicon that has taken this revolution further by becoming an essential ingredient of information technology, which has transformed the processes/hardware involved in collecting, storing and disseminating the myriad forms of information; silicon has also revolutionized the means of communication. Uranium can be the source of inexhaustible energy; however, although nuclear energy is considered clean, it has not yet been trusted completely as safe for humanity. Titanium has already made it possible for aviation industry to grow exponentially and become a feasible mode of transport; now it is on the way to doing the same to space travel. Nevertheless, titanium is also a vital ingredient in the manufacture of warplanes and various weapons of mass destruction (with or without nuclear arsenals).
Browne has seamlessly interwoven science, politics, history, mythology and other disciplines to provide an informative and riveting anecdotal narrative.
Published in The Financial World dated 15 June, 2013