Q&A with Tim James
(Re-posted for Non-Fiction November)
Welcome everyone to another fantastic non-fiction Q&A here on Always Trust In Books. I was ecstatic when I was allowed the opportunity to put some questions to Tim James, author of the outstanding ELEMENTAL: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything. I love the subject of the periodic table but I think even those who have shown no interest up to this point need to give this a go. ELEMENTAL is relevant, deeply interesting, endlessly intriguing and surprisingly hilarious. I cherished the opportunity to laugh hard while refreshing my knowledge on the periodic table as well as learn a few new things along the way. Thank you again to Tim James for answering these questions. Enjoy the Q&A!
05.07.2018 / Robinson (Little, Brown) / Non Fiction / Paperback / 224pp / 978-1472140944
About Tim James
Tim James is a secondary-school science teacher, YouTuber, blogger and Instagrammer. Raised by missionaries in Nigeria, he fell in love with science at the age of fifteen and refuses to get over his infatuation. After graduating with a Master’s degree in chemistry, specialising in computational quantum mechanics, he decided to get straight into the classroom and now teaches science to anyone who will listen.
About ELEMENTAL: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything
If you want to understand how our world works, the periodic table holds the answers. This book shows you how to use it to understand all the ingredients necessary to make a world.
The Universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago. At this point, all of existence could be summed up as an endless soup of particles frothing at temperatures many times hotter than the Sun. It was chaos. Fortunately, as the Universe expanded, everything began to cool and the particles stabilised. It was around this time, as disorder gave way to order, that the elements were born. Fast forward to June 2016 and the periodic table of elements was finally completed with the discovery and addition of four new elements. At last we could identify all the ingredients necessary to make a world. But it doesn’t stop there. Human ingenuity knows no bounds; we have even begun to invent our own elements and have created an entire science devoted to their study: chemistry.
When it comes to chemistry, Tim James knows his stuff. In Elemental he tells the story of the periodic table from its ancient Greek roots, when you could count the number of elements humans were aware of on one hand, to the modern alchemists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who have used nuclear chemistry and physics to generate new elements and complete the periodic table. In addition to this, James answers questions such as:
What is the chemical symbol for a human?
What would happen if all of the elements were mixed together?
How many bananas can you stand next to before you die of radiation sickness?
Which liquid can teleport through walls?
Why is the medieval dream of transmuting lead into gold now a reality?
Thank you Tim for taking some time to answer a few questions about your brilliant new non-fiction title ELEMENTAL: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything. Could you give us your own personal overview of what we should expect in within your work?
Elemental is intended as a light-hearted biography of chemistry itself. Its aim is to tell the story of how the periodic table emerged and why in the name of phosphorus it’s that shape. Chemistry has a reputation for being a confusing subject, so I wanted to demystify the jargon and decode what the whole thing means without relying on reems of equations (there’s only one in the whole book).
The periodic table is a fascinating subject. When did you decide you wanted to add another great book to the subject?
Mainly when I noticed there aren’t a lot of easy-read books about it. Biology, physics, astronomy and neuroscience are well represented in popular science literatrue but there are few titles on chemistry which aren’t either textbooks or reference guides. It’s the true underdog of the sciences and everyone loves an underdog story.
Can you give us a few details about how you explore the elements within your book?
In Elemental I talk about all 118 known elements (as well as speculating on those we haven’t discovered yet) but the book isn’t really a shopping-list of elements and what they do…that’s what the periodic table already does! The intention is to tell the unusual stories which got us from thinking everything was Earth/Air/Fire/Water/Magic to the deeper and more sophisticated picture we enjoy today.
Is there a particular area of chemistry that you are particularily interested in?
Really, the whole thing is fascinating. Apart from the element dysprosium obviously. When I did my research I specialised in an area called density functional theory which is a branch of quantum chemistry, so I feel a certain allegiance there, but I think the most honest answer is I’m scientifically greedy and I’ll stuff my brain with any of it.
What sort of challenges did you face when writing about such a vast subject like the building blocks of the universe?
Distinguishing apocryphal tales from genuine ones. There are so many anecdotes you pick up over the years about various scientists and their discoveries. Some are unverified, some are only reported in a single biography and some are widely accepted but there isn’t any evidence for them. Initially, I just wrote down everything I’d ever heard and then went through story by story, trying to separate truth from fiction. That was a grueling process but I had a lot of help from editors, researchers and dedicated students so it was quite rewarding by the end. Turns out Optimus Prime didn’t win a Nobel prize for inventing oxygen. Who knew?
Had you always wanted to author a book about the periodic table?
I’ve wanted to be a science teacher since I was about 15. I see writing this book as an extension of that. I work as a high-school science teacher, and this book is simple a chance to reach the biggest possible audience I can.
Are there any authors that you look up to as a writer that helped shape your work?
Countless, from both fiction and non-fiction. You can’t hope to write a good book without first reading better ones. It would be difficult to namecheck every author who has ever inspired me so I’ll pick a few non-fiction names who strike the balance between describing science in an accessible way without dumbing things down: Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Leonard Susskind, Robert Sapolsky, John Emsley, Ben Goldacre, VS Ramachandran, John Gribbin, Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg.
How long did it take you to plan and write ELEMENTAL?
I tend to binge-write with long breaks in between. I sat down and punched out the first draft in a few days, but it was obviously dreadful. So I stop writing for a few weeks and then come back to it, writing relentlessly and then pausing. From starting the first chapter to submitting the manuscript was about nine months. But I think if you added up the actual write-time it would be a few weeks, but that’s a few weeks working morning til midnight without breaking for silly things like food or sleep.
Can you tell us in five words what science means to you?
Science will save our species.
Did you take the time to celebrate finishing your book?
No. I phoned a few people to tell them it was finished, but otherwise I just carried on with my job as a teacher
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the work and writing?
Writing or reading about Science is my hobby. I work as a science teacher during the day and then I write about it or read about it in my spare time. Science is the healthiest obsession I think anyone can have.
Have you got plans for another book?
I’m actually working on a second book at the moment, but I’m not allowed to divulge details.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
Yeah, there’s this awesome book out there called Elemental I reccomend.
Thank you to Tim James for spending some time to tell us more about his epic non-fiction release ELEMENTAL. I am currently reading it and as the subject of the periodic table can be rather dense, it is refreshing to such a passionate and down-to-earth (and absolutely hilarious) insight into what this table of elements means to humanity. You have to check out this book as soon as you can. Learn, laugh and expand your mind. Thanks for stopping by to support Tim James.