A Detour to The Disappearing Spoon

Disappearing Spoon - book cover pic - PhylI may be doing the “Reading Through My Bookcases” thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t divert from time to time to read something else interesting. I was almost done my Artemis Fowl books (more on them in a future post), and I needed a break. And my birthday came up, and my mom sent some money, and I happened to buy a book that’s been on my TBR list for a long time: The Disappearing Spoon. So I read it.

And listen up, science buffs! It may be four years since it was published, but The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, is well worth reading, and it’s likely to be timeless. It’s about the periodic table—and yes, you heard me right. This is one of the books that takes the high school foundation of most of our scientific knowledge and actually brings it to life and makes it seem important to our everyday lives.

I’m sure that a lot of us saw the periodic table—that table listing all the known elements of the universe—hanging on the classroom wall in basic science classes or chemistry classes in school. The table organizes the elements in rows and columns that are determined by the things that groups of elements have in common. (Multiples of the same number of protons and neutrons in their nuclei, for example.) But there is way more to that table than just a bunch of lists. When you read Sam Kean describing how these elements were discovered, and then how scientists figured out enough about the elements to organize them into this table, you realize that almost the entire history of science is just sitting there in front of you, calmly waiting in all those rows and all those columns.

I’d always had the impression that most of the elements were just sort of “figured out” while isolated scientists here and there were doing their own experiments. Many of them were, but what I didn’t know was that the science world eventually figured out that there were way more elements out there to discover—there were gaps in the record that indicated that another element should exist between two others, for example—and then the race was on! I didn’t know what jealousies and grudges there could be as one scientist might get credit for discovering an element that another scientist actually discovered first. Oh, the woes of a delay in publication of an academic paper or of its presentation before an august scientific body! There was even a race between famous American and German universities to find new elements, and whenever the Americans found one, the news would make the New York Times.

I suppose we can still distantly relate to that one, can’t we, even though discoveries of new elements are now more theoretical than anything else? Except that we’ve come far enough that we’re now looking for the infinitesimally small particles that underlie those elements. Remember the excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson? That sort of thing happened a lot.

Kean gives us many anecdotes that show how fascinating and intriguing the history of the elements has been. Marie Curie got quite a reputation when she used to drag fellow scientists into a closet to show them her experiments with things that glowed in the dark. (The scientists’ wives didn’t take too kindly to this, but you might say that the radioactive elements gave them their eventual revenge by giving Curie aplastic anemia and bringing about her death.) Then there was the story from World War II about the German company (Metallgesellschaft) whose innocent-sounding subsidiary, American Metal, shipped tons and tons of molybdenum from a big mine in Bartlett Mountain in Colorado, to strengthen the huge German guns before the Americans finally stopped the shipments—in 1918.

People have actually hated certain elements, like followers of Gandhi who viewed the government’s requirement of adding iodine to salt (for genuine health purposes) to be just one more colonialist ploy, since common people who mined and sold salt as individuals could not add iodine to their products. People have also loved other elements a bit too much, like those who put toxic mercury into laxatives. What a way to go! And I had no idea that the plentiful aluminum that we easily throw away now used to be the most priceless substance in the world, before Charles Hall figured out how to extract it really cheaply. Put that aluminum tent over your turkey, next Thanksgiving or Christmas, and try to imagine wrapping it instead with a thin sheet of gold. It was like that.

Kean doesn’t deal with each element individually (he’d need 100+ chapters), but he organizes his chapters much a little bit like the periodic table itself is organized. That is, sometimes he deals with elements that are all in the same family, while at other times he talks about elements that all played similar roles. So you get such chapters as, “Elements in Times of War” (molybdenum is in here) or “Political Elements” or “Elements as Money.” The history and the science weave together in a fascinating and—dare I say it?—truly educational way. Chemistry class in high school was never like this! Maybe it should have been.

Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering why the book is called The Disappearing Spoon. You find that out in the chapter where gallium makes its appearance. It’s a silver-looking element that is quite solid at room temperature, but its melting temperature is slightly under 30 degrees Celsius (just below 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, it used to be a prank in laboratories to mold a teaspoon out of gallium, which would then melt when somebody tried to use it to stir a cup of tea. Oh, those wacky scientists!

I have an advantage in having gone four years since deciding I wanted to read The Disappearing Spoon. Now I can also look forward to reading Kean’s book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb, from 2012, as well as his book about how the human brain functions, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), published just this year. If those books are anywhere near as educational and informative as this one, they’re going to be a real treat!

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