P. A. Cox: The elements – their origin, abundance and distribution

The main aim of this book is to discuss how [the abundance and distribution of elements] have come about. Yet to pose this problem immediately invites other more fundamental ones: Where did the elements come from in the first place? How was the Earth formed, with a chemical composition very different form that of the universe as a whole? How are the elements distributed within the Earth? What geological and chemical processes formed the earth’s crust?


Why I read it

I’m doing some research at the moment on whether different energy technologies are going to be fighting over the same rare elements. Some people, for example, like to imagine futures where the world is covered with thin-film solar panels or nuclear reactors, both of which can need some pretty scarce substances. The professor I’m working for is wondering if there will be enough of these chemical building blocks to go around.

Of course, since this is a new area for me, this is what happened right off the bat: things that I read used a whole lot of terminology I didn’t understand. You sit down to try and find how much Indium we have access to, thinking there’ll be a magic number somewhere, and before you know it you’ve fallen down a dark rabbit hole of unanswered questions and the paper in front of you has the sentence, ‘Our data set differs from that of Smith et. al. due to the increased weighting given to the C1 chondrite meteorite contribution and new data concerning condensation curves for blah blah blah‘.

What does that stuff all mean? No idea. I was following increasingly opaque references until I found this book. It took me three days to carefully read it. After that, everything was clear.

Also, I’d learned so much interesting stuff that I could barely shut up about it.

What it’s about

This book doesn’t directly answer my questions about how much of a given element it’s possible to dig out of the ground. But it does give a whole lot of fundamental background information that’s hugely handy along the way. In fact, it’s so fundamental that it goes right back to the foundation of the universe itself: the Big Bang.

By starting at the beginning, it lets you understand why, for example, there is much, much more helium (element two) than lithium (element three) in the universe; why the earth has almost no helium and a relatively huge amount of silicon (despite the situation in the solar system as a whole being nearly opposite); why most of the earth’s platinum is in its centre not its crust, and how we know that; and why gold ends up in concentrated deposits whereas gallium is pretty evenly distributed.

This in turn requires basic scientific understanding in a bunch of different areas: stellar astronomy, nuclear physics, silicate chemistry, and plate tectonics to name a few. The joy of the book is that Cox seems to take you by the hand and lead you through things, explaining everything that you need, right when you need it, and clearly.

Why the book is a delight

Textbooks are generally boring things. One exception to the rule is when the right textbook turns up when you are hopelessly, frustratingly confused.

Then, the textbook is like a gift from a higher power. It’s as welcome as a cool drink in the desert. The fact that someone has invested their time to save you yours makes you so grateful you could weep. It makes reading about quantum nuclear orbitals a joy. You have never felt so grateful for a well-compiled table of data.

As a bonus, it’s also concise and easy to read. The downside is that it’s out of print, expensive and hard to find.

The most interesting stuff

This is the stuff I was telling other people about afterwards, whether or not they were really interested: the fascinating reasons why Venus has a different proportion of deuterium in its atmosphere to Earth’s; how good it was to be reminded why nuclear disintegration is a statistical process only; why a rare type of meteorite lets us estimate how much of each element there is in the solar system; how the earth would be made of completely different stuff if the temperature had been slightly different when it was forming; how nearly all atoms heavier than hydrogen were made in stars, and most of that matter is helium, but the helium in helium balloons wasn’t made in stars; and so on.

And I’ve learned all this at a good time: it’s helped me understand just why the data from the Rosetta mission that landed yesterday could ‘revolutionise the understanding of the origins of the solar system‘.

Of course I know not many people share my enthusiasm for this stuff. But there are a few, and I’ve now got some of their books too: Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks, Nature’s Building Blocks by John Emsley, and The Elements by Theodore Gray for starters. For anyone else who’s interested in the elements, I’d recommend adding Cox to your list, too.


This book was mostly read in the State Library of South Australia




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