by John Emsley

An account of how six elements play unsuspected roles in our lives. Here there are strange tales about pills, accidents, women scientists, rigged horse races, and restoring church murals.

  • Published: 1992
  • Publisher: BBC Education
  • ISBN: 978-1874239000; 1-874239002
Cover of The Human Element bookletDid you know?
This booklet was written to accompany a series of BBC television programmes called 'The Human Element' and which were broadcast in 1992. They featured the elements arsenic, carbon, oxygen, uranium, nitrogen and sulphur. The one about arsenic examined the theory that Napoleon was poisoned by this element which was released as the gas trimethyl arsine from the green pigment on the damp wallpaper of his bedroom. We know there was such wallpaper because a sample has survived, and it does indeed show the presence of arsenic in its green images. Today we known this theory of accidental poisoning is wrong because, although traces of the arsine gas are emitted form mould on such wallpaper, it isn't particularly dangerous.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 - Arsenic: the strange story of Napoleon's wallpaper
  • Chapter 2 - Carbon: a scattering of ashes
  • Chapter 3 - Oxygen: the fatal shift
  • Chapter 4 - The Periodic Table
  • Chapter 5 - Uranium and Protactinium: a gift from heaven
  • Chapter 6 - Nitrogen: a question of doping
  • Chapter 7 - Sulphur: a restoration drama
  • Further information: where to access more information about the elements
  • Useful organisations and places to visit