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Book 5: Seven Elements that have Changed the World by John Browne (2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books)

Neda’s Notes – Seven Elements that have Changed the World by John Browne

SevenThere are works of non-fiction that focus solely on the subject matter and then there are works of non-fiction that are just as much about the author’s views as about the topic at hand.  Seven Elements that have Changed the World falls squarely in the latter category.

I have learned much about John Browne (Lord Browne of Madingley), his role as the former chief executive of BP (and the conversations he was part of while there), what he likes to collect (gold relics from South America and rare books from around the world), his choice of vacation activities (notably a gondola ride in the canals of Venice and a bike ride in New York City), and the many prominent people he has had the pleasure of meeting for business purposes (Tony Blaire and Hugo Chavez, to name just two).  And in between these tales of lifelong adventures, I also learned a few things about the historic (and personal) significance of iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon.

Browne is undoubtedly a curious person who throughout his life has utilized his resources and networks to broaden his understanding of topics ranging from art to economics.  There is palatable zest in his scholarly attempts of writing about life-long passions, which include U.S. iron magnates at the turn of the 20th century, photography and silver-coated plates used in its early format, and the more current sociopolitical issues of uranium. The blatant (and unapologetic) personal involvement in each chapter is just as common a theme as the elements that are depicted. As such, a better title for the book might have been, My Seven Favorite Elements.

The best example of this is the chapter on the element carbon, almost twice as long as the chapters on any of the other elements, and basically a treatise on oil and natural gas.  Browne affirms that, “carbon’s story begins millennia before we began to use oil on an industrial scale,” but then spends very little time on this history and its significance.  In fact, most of the chapter is peppered with his experiences in the oil industry starting in the 1950s, more specifically what he saw and learned, and the decisions he was part of since joining BP in 1966.  Though it is interesting to read the thoughts of an expert on the changing oil industry (e.g. fracking and climate change), I am not convinced he looked at the broad history and uses of carbon.

According to Browne, there are only seven elements in this book because these are the only ones to have “powerfully changed the course of human history.” I was hesitant to accept this claim before reading the book and am still not convinced having read what he has to say about each of these elements.  For instance, it seems odd not to include nitrogen, which has had a critical role in medicine and agriculture, but to include titanium because of its limited role in WWII warfare.  Some level of subjectivity is reasonable (and needed) when deciding how to approach the multitude of possible elements, but the definitiveness with which Browne states that these are the only ones that changed history was never adequately proven in the 250-page book, which is as much (if not more) an autobiography as a science book.

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Neda Afsarmanesh is Senior Press Officer at Nature Publishing Group, working in the New York City office.


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