The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus

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9780471394556: The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus
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The incredible "glowing" history of the "Devil's element "phosphorus

Discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by ninth-century industrialists, and abused by twentieth-century combatants, the chemical element phosphorus has fascinated us for more than three centuries. It may even be the cause of will-o'-the wisps and spontaneous human combustion! Now John Emsley has written an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. Shining with wonderful nuggets-from murders-by-phosphorus to a match factory strike; from the firebombing of Hamburg to the deadly compounds derived from phosphorus today-The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and bizarre events.

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The 13th Element It was discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by the industrialists of the nineteenth century, and abused by the combatants of the twentieth century. For more than 300 years, phosphorus-one of nature's deadliest creations-has continued to fascinate us with the many surprising roles it has played in human history. 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. First unleashed in the mid-1600s in Hamburg, Germany, when alchemist Hannig Brandt distilled it from human urine, phosphorus was hailed as one of the secret substances of the "philosopher's stone" and a marvelous cure-all. However, it soon became known as the "devil's element" by causing more curses than cures. Although phosphorus matches (called lucifers) were considered "the greatest boon and blessing to come to mankind in the nineteenth century," the women and children who made them endured dangerous and unbearable working conditions and, eventually, the rasping pain of phossy jaw. During World War I, the bum damage done by phosphorus was horrific. During World War II, the Nazis turned phosphorus into chemical agents far more powerful in disabling people than any other war gas. It has for centuries been used as a murderous poison. Whenever man has wanted to commit evil, phosphorus has often been there to help him. But set against these tales of woe are the remarkable benefits of phosphorus. It can be found in many things that have improved our everyday life, from toothpaste to detergents to food additives. And it can also cause wonder; phosphorus is the likely cause of mysterious lights, graveyard ghosts, and spontaneous human combustion! 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.

From the Back Cover:

Praise for John Emsley's the 13th Element "This is popular science at its best, a great subject, unfolded with the skill of the storyteller; at once a mine of information and a thoroughly good read." -The Sunday Times (London) "This well-written book is an examination of the very character of all chemicals." -The Sunday Telegraph (London) Praise for John Emsley's Molecules at an Exhibition "Emsley's facts can be fascinating and his stories are nicely loopy." -Ann Finkbeiner, New York Times Book Review "The worst smell in the world comes from methyl mercaptan; phosphoric acid (an ingredient in Coke) can remove rust from chrome; and phenylethylamine (PEA) is the feel-good molecule in chocolate-just a few of the curious facts found in science writer and chemistry professor Emsley's gallery. Blending history, science, anecdote, and intriguing facts, he discusses curious molecules in food, molecules that can help and harm the young, detergents, high-tech materials, molecules in the environment, and molecules from hell." -Book News

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