Friday, May 28, 2010

Visual Elements

I've really enjoyed John Emsley's book, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements- an eminently dippable book about the chemical elements. I had started work on a website which would hopefully capture some of the interest of the book, but then I discovered this one, which to be honest does a better job than I am likely to be able to, and which I therefore recommend.

Oddly enough, I take issue with the Damien Hirst quote on the front page - who talks about "The perfect symbol of Man's attempt to understand, and ultimately to control, nature." It's not clear what Hirst was talking about - most likely the Periodic Table, possibly the concept of elements - and a cursory search on the internet failed to provide clarification. However, it implies that the Periodic Table is a merely human construct - that in using it, we are imposing our own order on nature.

As A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Naturemakes clear, though, the periodic table wasn't really invented so much as discovered. It's not merely a matter of interpretation, with one person's opinions as good as another's - the table represents an ordering of nature that exists independently of human minds. An alien species that somehow managed to develop chemistry (though The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discoveryshows just how amazing it is that this should happen!) would also come up with the Periodic Table, ultimately.

Both Privileged Planet and A Meaningful World slant towards the belief that the presence of this order, and the fact it can be discovered (not constructed) by human minds, is evidence of another mind, ordering the universe. The alternative is that something as elegant and complex should emerge as the product of chance - or as just one possible outcome in the infinitude of a multiverse.

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