July 20, 2010
Most of the time we don’t think about the periodic table. Individual elements are always important—gold, oxygen, aluminum—but we rarely consider the table as a whole. It just hangs on the wall where it will be consulted from time to time (or perhaps admired for its aesthetics, like the one that hangs by my desk). But there’s more to the table than just a clever arrangement of letters and number, and in his book, The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean delves into the fascinating stories behind that ubiquitous poster.
Each chapter of the book covers a group of elements and a specific part of science history. Readers learn about how the periodic table got its shape, the development of chemical weapons, how various elements have been used in money and why the Swedish town of Ytterby has seven elements named for it. But it’s the littler stories that I enjoyed, those bits of random history and facts too obscure even for quiz shows. My favorites:
* Thallium is considered the deadliest element, pretending to be potassium to gain entry into our cells where it then breaks amino acid bonds within proteins. The CIA once developed a plan to poison Fidel Castro by dosing his socks with thallium-tainted talcum powder.
* Beryllium tastes like sugar but you wouldn’t want to use it as a substitute. Up to a tenth of the human population is susceptible to acute beryllium disease and the rest can develop chemical pneumonitis from exposure to beryllium powder.
* An Eagle Scout in the mid-1990s tried to make a nuclear reactor in his backyard (but was caught before he could manage to find any uranium-235).
* Several scientists “discovered” element 43—naming it things like “davyium” and “nipponium”—only to have their discoveries debunked. Element 43 wasn’t truly discovered until the 1930s; technetium, as it was eventually named, was the first element to be made artificially (in a cyclotron).
* The disappearing spoon of the title is made of gallium, which looks like aluminum but melts at 84 degrees. Place a spoon made of gallium in a cup of hot tea and it will vanish.
The book is written in such a way that readers won’t need to bone up on their chemistry to understand the science. And those who do remember their chem class days won’t be bored since the book is filled with so many stories from such a range of areas of history, from war to biology to literature.
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