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The Facebook of Chemical Elements

“Wonderful Life with the Elements”: Yorifuji illustrates Dmitri Mendeleev’s lifework. Credit: No Starch Press

Admit it. You’ve found yourself on more than one occasion scrolling through your list of Facebook friends, wondering, hey, what ever happened to so-and-so? Then, before you know it, you’re looking at your acquaintance’s profile, learning all about what’s been going on in their life over the past several years. Wow, they had a kid! Neat, they studied in Paris. Eww, Ishtar is one of their favorite movies?? It’s like you’re meeting them again for the first time.

And that’s the experience chemists will have when they open up “Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified,” a humorous guide to the chemical elements in which Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji reimagines everything from hydrogen to ununoctium as humanlike caricatures. Although it’s an effort targeted at chemistry neophytes (“I’ve created a periodic table that should be a bit more accessible to newcomers,” Yorifuji proudly proclaims at the book’s onset), the playful reimagining of the chemical elements will still delight chemists who know the periodic table like the back of their hand.

Just like the periodic table, Yorifuji’s book catalogs drawings of the chemical elements according to atomic number, placing the artwork alongside quick facts specific to each element. At first glance, Yorifuji’s whimsical depictions of the chemical elements may appear shallow and juvenile. Look, hydrogen has a long bushy beard and is wearing an undershirt! readers might laugh as they look at the first element’s entry. But there’s more to Yorifuji’s drawings than initially meets the eye. In hydrogen’s case, the unkempt facial hair serves as a symbol of hydrogen’s discovery many centuries ago, and the undershirt speaks to the element’s myriad uses (“margarine is hardened using hydrogen,” a nearby caption elaborates). Had hydrogen been discovered in the 18th century, it would have sported a well-groomed beard according to Yorifuji’s criteria. Elements discovered in the 19th century are clean shaven while ones begotten in the 20th century, in a nod to their youth, suck a pacifier.

Hydrogen: Click image to see it like you’ve never seen it before. Credit: No Starch Press

It’s a lot of information to take in. So much so, in fact, reading Yorifuji’s tome cover to cover would be nearly impossible. Rather, the book, with its impressive marriage of visuals and facts, works best when thought of in terms of that predecessor to Facebook, a yearbook. Readers can pick up the book, thumb through it for a few minutes, bask in the imagery and text, and then put it down feeling as though they’ve just taken a fun trip down memory lane. After all, the humorously drawn elements in Yorifuji’s book are the very same characters chemists met many years ago in their first chemistry class. And perusing “Wonderful Life with the Elements” will leave chemists feeling as though they’ve just been reintroduced to their childhood friends all over again.

Those interested in flipping through their own yearbook of the chemical elements can visit http://nostarch.com/wle. Use the code CENBLOG to receive a 30% discount at checkout. Each purchase also includes an ebook (PDF) version for free.

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