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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements Paperback – June 6, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Science magazine reporter Kean views the periodic table as one of the great achievements of humankind, "an anthropological marvel," full of stories about our connection with the physical world. Funny, even chilling tales are associated with each element, and Kean relates many. The title refers to gallium (Ga, 31), which melts at 84ËšF, prompting a practical joke among "chemical cognoscenti": shape gallium into spoons, "serve them with tea, and watch as your guests recoil when their Earl Grey ˜eats™ their utensils." Along with Dmitri Mendeleyev, the father of the periodic table, Kean is in his element as he presents a parade of entertaining anecdotes about scientists (mad and otherwise) while covering such topics as thallium (Tl, 81) poisoning, the invention of the silicon (Si, 14) transistor, and how the ruthenium (Ru, 44) fountain pen point made million for the Parker company. With a constant flow of fun facts bubbling to the surface, Kean writes with wit, flair, and authority in a debut that will delight even general readers. 10 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Like big-game hunters, scientists who stalked an undiscovered element courted peril: Marie Curie and Enrico Fermi both died from exposure to dangerous elements in the course of their experiments. But besides them and Dmitri Mendeleev, the deviser of the periodic table, which looms over science classrooms everywhere, few discoverers of the elements occupy the consciousness of even avid science readers. Kean rectifies that in this amble from element 1, hydrogen, to element 112, copernicium. Attaching stories to a human-interest angle, Kean ensures that with his elaboration of the fixation a chemist, physicist, industrialist, or artist had for a particular element comes clarity about why the element behaves as it does. The soft sell about proton numbers and electron shells thus closes the deal for Kean’s anecdotes about elements of war, elements of health, and elements of wealth, plus the title’s practical joke of a spoon (made from gallium). Whether explaining why Silicon Valley is not Germanium Valley or reveling in naming-rights battles over a new element, Kean holds interest throughout his entertaining debut. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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It's easy to glance at the periodic table. Perhaps a bit harder still to understand the fantastic trends of periodicity or electron clouds, but it's all there. The history of the table is substantially less well known to even interested students of the sciences like myself. I found it riveting to learn about the soap opera level dramatics that go on during the naming of elements. It was eye-opening to read about the many hard working and honest scientists who kept their noses to the grindstone, sometimes disbelieving of the novel phenomena they observed.
This was a great book and one that I will happily recommend to others when they need a break from hitting the books.
Kean discusses the history of each element in a brief, interesting way. When talking of element 118, Ununoctium, he describes the scandal behind it. After it was “discovered,” people began searching for the data only to find there was none. Of course it was later proven, and is now sitting on the 7th period of the periodic table. Again history is present when Kean talks of chemical warfare, and how bromine and chlorine bombs were thrown between Germany and France. These historical tidbits add a sense of reality to the story, allowing for the reader to relate to the text easily. It keeps the reader interested, even for one not necessarily interested in chemistry.
The description of harmful effects the elements potentially have add yet another layer of realism. The danger behind the atoms that make up our world remind us to respect them and proceed with caution in research. Nuclear bombs are clearly dangerous, as shown by history. However, when Kean talks of when it was first hypothesized, the pioneers clearly see the danger and possible misuse while moving forward. We can see looking back the power elements contain, as the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan destroyed two cities and countless lives. Again, when Cadmium is brought up, the danger of elements is seen. It was being dumped into the water by a Japanese mining company, and the consumption lead to a disease causing liver failure and weakened bones. The sense of danger Kean places above the elements shows us that while they are essential to our survival, they can kill us just as easily if not treated properly. This section in the book really keeps the reader hooked, as the very real possibility of death or serious harm while dealing with elements will hold the attention of anybody.
Kean does a good job keeping the book interesting through the history and harmful effects of elements. The scandals and potential dangers in the world of Chemistry give it much more depth. As a reader, the book sought only to increase my interest in the field with these aspects. All in all, The Disappearing Spoon was a fun to read, and taught me more of the broad field that is chemistry.
I gave a Kindle to my 16-year-old grandson this Christmas, and followed up by gifting him with a copy of this book as something likely to increase his knowledge of the world (considering the general state of U.S. schools, probably not a bad thing to do). Apart from the email admission that I had greatly enjoyed this, I said nothing more.
About a month later my son called to tell me what a great book it was. His son repeatedly showed up to read some passage or other aloud to him as "a really neat thing to know." Now, my son wants the book, too.
"But the best thing," my son went on, "was that on my way to the back of the house I pass his room. There he was on several occasions, stretched out on the bed reading his Kindle, and the television was OFF!"
A book that can compete with TV for the attention of a teenage mind? Worth every penny. And I say this well aware that many here object to Kindle books priced over $10. While I certainly prefer to pay less whenever possible, I am also well aware that a solid work on the chemical elements is likely to sell far fewer copies than one on the sexual practices of the rich and famous, and its author is therefore justified in asking a higher price. (He still won't make as much money as the sex writer will, but he'll get a bit closer, and I am in favor of authors getting paid.)
So, parents and grandparents, if you want to do something for the kids that is probably not being done for them in school, bite the bullet and get this book.