You'd have to work quite hard not to like Itchingham Lofte. He's an old-fashioned 14-year-old, ordinary but obsessive. He collects elements the way 14-year-olds once collected football memorabilia or stamps. "There was, he thought, no point in collecting anything else. This was everything else. It was the catalogue of everything that existed in the universe, stripped down to its 118 basic ingredients."
Itch is not halfway to his goal when, in among the fragments of Victorian arsenic-coloured wallpaper, bits of tin, lithium batteries and scrapings of match-head phosphorus, there arrives, one fateful day, a lump of something tentatively identified as element 126.
Element 126 has never been discovered. Itch's new, mysteriously warm bit of rock is intensely radioactive yet puzzlingly stable. It could make fortunes, change the world or even blow it up. Dark corporate forces would love to get their hands on this fiendish unobtainium, and the darkest corporate force of all turns out to be the international energy company that sponsors the academy Itch attends. So he is up to his neck in trouble, though never entirely out of his depth.
There is, naturally, a mad scientist, whose brilliance, arrogance and energy are precisely the qualities that 100 years ago made Professor Challenger, hero of Conan Doyle's The Lost World, so attractive to generations of young readers and opened up science as a field for glorious literary adventure. Can the naive but resourceful Itch and his enemy, the evil but brilliant Nathaniel Flowerdew, do for physical chemistry what Challenger did for dinosaurs, astrochemistry and geophysics? Probably not, but amid the teenage intrigue and heart-in-mouth escapades there are sequin flashes of real science: reminders that physical chemistry really does make things happen, and that astrochemistry and geophysics are the forces that must have fashioned and delivered the radioactive McGuffin.
Itch exploits his newly acquired awareness of chemistry to move the story along in a high-speed Hitchcockian manner, quite complex scientific ideas introduced and then dropped swiftly as the action starts again. We never get to find out much about the deadly discovery that fuels the story, except that it could solve the energy problems of the planet, or deliver a terrorist's dream, yet at the same time remain something a young boy could keep (not at all safely) in his rucksack.
One does wonder at a chief executive of an international corporation who is prepared to admit even to himself that he is one of the bad guys, and at the hippy who casually sells Itch the hot rock in the first place, but also seems to know just how dangerous it is. There are enough loose ends to drive a sequel and, sure enough, after the conclusion there is a teaser from the next instalment.
Can such adventures inspire a new generation of unashamed science geeks? Why not? WE Johns's Biggles stories and Arthur Ransome's sailing books exposed new horizons for young urban readers. Radio 2 DJ Simon Mayo has given us an amiable hero who could, in theory, do the same for the periodic table. The story has the right elements, but is that enough to set off a chain reaction?
• Tim Radford's The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things is published by Fourth Estate.
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