Seven Elements That Have Changed The World

John Browne

Why I looked at this book

This book is a contender for the Royal Society Winton Prize 2014

First impressions

This is a difficult topic to deal with well, and I think I'll reserve my opinion on how well Browne succeeds until I've read more of the book. I found the historical bits interesting - for instance how Bessemer developed revolutionary way of producing steel - but I'm a bit worried that the book might be too much like an old fashioned geography textbook, with Browne listing facts about resource production in the various places he has visited in his career.

Main review

After a look at the Flatiron building in New York in chapter 1, the second chapter starts with Venice's Festa del Redentore. I began to wonder whether this was turning into a travel book rather than a popular science book. Reading further though I thought that the book got better. Chapter 2 (Carbon) and 3 (Gold) had much of interest. After that though I thought it became less interesting. Chapter 4 (Silver) was rather outshone by that on Gold, and the last three chapters on Uranium, Titanium and Silicon had some interesting parts, but mostly weren't particularly inspiring.

The thing is that Browne has taken on a difficult task, and I don't think that he entirely succeeds. I found that the bits about how these elements influenced the society of various times and places were of interest, but it's hard to make more recent history of technology inspiring. So Browne adds some personal interest, which is all very well, but in his case it starts to look like name-dropping and flaunting his high-flying career. I can't help thinking that Browne is really more suited to writing a book about the things cultures value the most, both in history and more recently, rather than having to find 'Interesting things about element X'.

Maybe others find this book more interesting. Some, for instance, might find the bits about military technology interesting ("The First and Second World Wars were fought with Iron and Carbon; the Cold War would be fought with Titanium and Uranium"), but not me. The book is in the shortlist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton prize, but in my view it isn't one of the best.

Reviews Elsewhere

Amazon Reviews - well at the time of writing there's just one on the US site, rather more on the page, which give an OK impression on average, but I note that the detailed reviews are the negative ones and the 5 star ones just a couple of sentences. It's a similar story at Goodreads although here there are some longer positive reviews. A lot of people think that Browne is too egotistical.

There's a review by Ian Sample at the Guardian, but generally this book seems to have fewer reviews than the other contenders for the 2014 Royal Society Winton prize.