Remember that kid who doodled all through your chemistry class instead of taking notes? Now imagine if that kid had an encyclopedic knowledge of the elements as well as a knack for drawings that made everyone giggle behind the teacher’s back.
That’s the feeling we get flipping through Bunpei Yorifuji‘s “Wonderful Life With the Elements.” Yorifuji is well known for his series of Tokyo Metro manners posters that urged riders to, among other things, “do it at home.”
Though the pull-out periodic table poster looks at first like a random collection of whimsical yellow guys, every part of each endearing little dude is carefully designed. From their ages, hair styles, and clothing (or lack thereof) to their weight and facial hair, every, well, element of each element matters and tells you something about each substance. (It might remind kanji nerds of the way kanji radicals add up.)
Most of the elements get their own pages. Illustrations show key properties (toxic thallium is soft like butter) as well as where they turn up in daily life (“Sodium compounds are great for housework!”) and beyond (boron is key in both fake movie snow and roach poison). There’s a section on eating the elements that compares the elements contained in a Japanese vs. a Western breakfast.
We learn which elements like to stick together for good, like the “digital semiconductor trio.” Troublemakers are grouped together, too, like the elements that were used to attack subways in Tokyo as sarin gas and to poison a pot of curry in Wakayama. They appear as benign-looking acrobatic combinations, perhaps suggesting that the elements themselves aren’t evil.
We wonder if future editions might address elements that have gained new prominence. Things have changed since the original Japanese version (元素生活, genso seikatsu) came out in 2009. Japanese scientists created Ununtrium for the first time just last month. Cesium, the subject of thousands of post-Fukushima articles, gets no more than a nod as a natural timekeeper, and there’s no mention of the problems that iodine can cause when its radioactive version is ingested.
The English version, published by geeky U.S. imprint No Starch Press, is available in Japan through Amazon.com or Amazon.jp. The original is at bookstores all over Japan and online. There is a bit of Japanese scattered throughout the book, including each element’s Japanese name and Chinese character, but not their readings. The book may be too late to help many of us pass our chemistry tests, but it’s a great second chance to get to know the elements as the individuals they are.