The Disappearing Spoon – Good Chemistry

As part of my ongoing attempt to remember what the heck I read, a quick blog on a recommended read:

Title: the Disappearing Spoon, And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Periodic Table of the Elements.
Author: Sam Kean
Recommended Read (out of 5, 5 being highest): 4.5
My thoughts: In general I am a student of history and in particular I enjoy reading about the history of science.  To me science is one of the greatest human achievements.  It allowed ourselves to move to a rationale state away from the tyranny of myth and legend.  This book is about one of the greatest of all human achievements, the creation of the periodic table.

YAWWNNN you may think but the history is full of humanity at its best and worst.  At its best is the sharing of knowledge that allowed for an obscure Russian, Dmitri Mendeleev, to effectively lift the study of matter out of an understanding that really had not changed since the Greeks.  It is about the sharing of that knowledge so that one person’s breakthrough is done by standing the shoulders of giants.

Of course goody-goody-two-shoes scientists are great when it comes to inventing silicon chips for smart phones or sulfa drugs to treat diseases; but flawed scientists and skull drudgery are much more interesting and this book is full of them.  And, they are all linked back to the periodic table.  Two great examples

  • During World War I the Germans managed to claim jump and generally harass the owner of one of the very few Molybdenum mines in the world.  Added to steel, this alloy can withstand the excessive heat in artillery guns because it melts at 4,750F.  It was not until 1918 that the US federal government realized that the mine was stolen from one of its own citizens – and that the metal – critical to the war effort, had been sent to Germany.
  • When I think of Marie Currie I imagine her as a saintly woman scientist suffering the indignities of a sexist period in our history.  It turns out that she was also a bit of femme fatale.  Thus she would pull fellow scientists into dark closets – see her glowing vial of Radium. Curious from concerned wives of the scientists would ensure the observations did not last too long!

The Disappearing Spoon should be required reading for high school or perhaps first year college chemistry course.  Not only is full of interesting characters – which were also brilliant – it is also a book that allows one to understand the current configuration of the periodic table from the ground up.

The individual who discovered or the image of the element

The individual who discovered or the image of the element

From Chapters: Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?*

The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. THE DISAPPEARING SPOON masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery–from the Big Bang through the end of time.

*Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A classic science prank is to mold gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch guests recoil as their utensils disappear.