Seldom has there been as celebrated an element as phosphorus. Now, in his book The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire and Phosphorus, chemist John Emsley puts together a very readable account of the stories spun by 'the devil's element' throughout the history of humanity. Consider this diabolical substance in its many gory and paradoxical manifestations:
1. As a favourite tonic in the middle ages to cure everything from warts to impotency. The dosage which was prescribed at the time would surely have caused even the most hardened physician of today to faint.
2. As a favourite poison to put an end to disliked lives and lovers, used throughout the ages. This includes a recent case where a woman murdered not one but two husbands with phoshorus. In the absence of forensic science, one of the most convincing indications of phosphorus poisoning was the observation of a glow emanating from the dead body in the dark- a phenomenon which almost certainly led to the haunting tales of phosphorescence in 'The Hound of Baskervilles'.
3. As the ubiquitous energy releasing element; in the form of the chemical currency of cells, ATP, phosphorus essentially makes life possible.
4. As an industrial necessity in the dank and gloomy match making factories of 19 century England. More than any other, this was the element which gave employment to millions, led to some of the first large scale industrial strikes we know, and also caused the horrific disease ('phossy jaw') which causes the jaw to rot away.
5. As an element of death again, this time as the major component of the infamous phosphorus bombs, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands in the most macabre manner, during the WW2 bombing of Hamburg and Dresden.
6. As the element which literally feeds the world; as a constituent of fertilizer, its importance is unparalleled.
7. As a scaffold for the most poisonous substances known to man-the nerve gases which today threaten civilization as never before, causing death in a few seconds.
Emsley has investigated these and many more incarnations of this diabolical element in great and striking detail. He writes with great eloquence, and convinces us of the remarkable role that phosphorus has played not only in industrialized life, but indeed, in world history. With it are associated some of our most potent glories and follies and it is representative of the subtly strange power that a single element can wield on human life. I want to stress that I am not being biased as a chemist, but that this is in fact one of the few books I have come across which will be very interesting to any layman. Since school, we have always been taught that 'carbon is the most important element for life. Think again. The history of Phosphorus is at once shocking and essential knowledge.
"Discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by nineteenth-century industrialists, and abused by twentieth-century combatants, phosphorus is one of nature’s deadliest–and most fascinating–creations. Now award-winning author John Emsley combines his gift for storytelling with his scientific expertise to present an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. From murders-by-phosphorus where the bodies glowed green, to the match factory strike that helped end child labor in England, to the irony of the World War II firebombing of Hamburg, to even deadlier compounds derived from phosphorus today, The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and curious, bizarre, and horrific events that comprise the surprising 300-year history of nature’s most nefarious element".
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