Wonderful Life With The Elements: The Periodic Table Personified by Bunpei Yorifuji (book review).

The ‘Wonderful Life With The Elements’ is a clever book with a sophisticated premise. Each of the 103 elements described is characterised as a cartoon person with features such as hair styles and clothing used to denote physical and chemical properties. Supplemental cartoons illustrate other aspects of the element’s nature such as its usefulness to man, while a brief paragraph of text outlines the elements history and any other notable facts. It’s very much a Japanese take on the topic, not least of all because of the way the diagrams adhere strictly to the conventions the author sets out at the start of the book. So while the cartoons aren’t manga, they’re instantly recognisable as Japanese cartoons.


Bracketing the pages concerned with the individual elements are sections that cover the elements in a more broad-brush approach, detailing things like the abundance of the major elements in the Earth’s crust and where we might find certain elements being useful around the home. The fourth chapter is particularly interesting, describing the elements that make up our food, with cartoons and notes comparing Japanese breakfasts with European and American ones.

Overall, the book is remarkably comprehensive. While surely not intended as a chemistry textbook, the book is broadly accurate, though there are some debatable points and the distinction between the elements themselves and their compounds isn’t always made clear. In terms of age range, this is a book for those with a college-level education or at least ambitions in that direction, such as high school students studying the elements, compounds and the periodic table.

Unfortunately, though, this reviewer didn’t enjoy the book nearly as much as he’d hoped. While the author’s artistic style and sense of humour presumably work well in Japanese, it doesn’t feel fluid or even particularly funny in English. The small scale of the diagrams and the information-rich format makes it difficult to just dip into this book for just a few minutes. To really enjoy this book you need to work at it and that’s something that’ll appeal more to those with a working knowledge of chemistry than those with a more casual interest in the natural world.

With that said, author and illustrator Bunpei Yorifuji has come up with something novel and interesting. We’re so familiar now with science communicators looking out towards the stars and planets that we often forget there’s a whole other universe within us, the hundred-odd elements that each have their own personalities and properties. Bunpei Yorifuji invites us to think about this ‘chemical universe’ and while his approach is unique and perhaps a little challenging at times, it certainly works.

Neale Monks

December 2012

(pub: No Starch Press. 208 page hardback. Price: $17.95(US). ISBN: 978-1-59327-423-8)

check out website: www.nostarch.com

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