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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 the Library Binding edition.
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 the Library Binding edition.
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Top customer reviews
The development of the Periodic Table began in the 1800s. It was created by a Russian Chemist named Dimitri Mendeleev (references to this can be found on page 17 of the book) who was born on February 8, 1834 and died on February 2, 1907. Because of the Periodic Table, scientist were able to better predict what element was to come next. This is because the Periodic Table was well organized and put certain elements into rows and columns, telling the charges and masses of the elements and their atoms. Ernest Rutherford, a physics professor at the University of Manchester, created a way of splitting atoms. This can be found on page 98 of the Disappearing Spoon. He and a student of his also found a new way to look at the atom of an element. Before, many believed that the atom was shaped were certain rays would just pass through them and that the electrons would be placed in “rows.” When Rutherford and his student created the new look of the atom, it astonished chemists and other scientists around the world. They found that the rays can pass through some parts of the atom, but some get bounced back. In 1940, the U.S. government decided to start helping with the fight against the Axis powers. One way they did this, was by asking scientists, like McMillan, to work on things like radar. By creating this, it would help the U.S. take down the Axis powers. Evidence of this can be found on page 117.
As time went on, chemistry started to become more than just the study of matter and elements. It began to be used in other areas of Science. An example of this, is medicine. Certain compounds and elements are used to help heal patients or to strengthen them. Sam talks about how chemistry can even be used to get rid of tumors. Sam says, “Normally, triggering a nano-nuke inside the body is bad, but if doctors can induce tumors to absorb gadolinium, it’s sort of an enemy of a bad thing.” (page 171) Elements have an impact on other parts of the body too. For instance, it can impact one’s taste of something. Sam says, “The taste buds for savory, or unami, lock onto glutamate…” (Page 193).
Overall, the book did a good job teaching about the development of the periodic table and the ever-changing uses of the elements. The parts that show this the best, the Periodic Table and when it was created, the production on radar during WWII, and the use of chemistry and elements in medicine.
Sam Kean has an excellent structure upon which to delve into basic chemistry and physics. The Periodic Table of Elements names all the atoms known to man and out of which all things that matter (pardon the pun) are made. The elements are divided into broad categories that allow grouping in order to tell not only the history of the science stories behind their discovery, but also the history of man in many cases. Thus, we get general categories that describe structural and behavioral characteristics like the Noble Gases and Transition Metals, but also interesting groupings defined by civilization's usage such as Elements as Money (Gold, platinum and others) and atomic elements (which gives the author the chance to describe the Manhattan project as well as precursor discoveries).
This book will remind fans of Bill Bryson as "Brysonic" in its organization and style. Kean will often transgress into the idiosyncracies of the scientists and discoverors behind the elements. I don't know if great scientists are stranger than the average human, but if this grouping is reflective of the whole, scientists and discoverers and groundbreakers tend to be sharp characters (with an emphasis on both adjectives).
I also learned the basics of physics and chemistry. The author is excellent at laying out basic principles of structure and behavior in a way that I, a non-scientist, was able to understand and appreciate. It reminded me of Bryson's "A Short History of Everything" which I also though was excellent in the way it translated technical information for the non-technician.
In short, an informative and enjoyable work.