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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 Hardcover – July 12, 2010
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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.
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
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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.
Kean’s fascination with the elements began with the shiny silver beads formed when he dropped the thermometers used to take his temperature during frequent childhood bouts of strep throat. “From that one element, I learned history, etymology, alchemy, mythology, literature, poison forensics, and psychology. “ As what seemed a sideline to scientific studies in college, he collected tales about the elements and “realized that there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table. At the same time, the table is one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind. It’s both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook.”
In his telling, the scientists and occasional con artists come alive. And the elements themselves step forward as characters. Who can resist an explanation of the carbon basis of life that contains the statement, “That promiscuity is carbon’s virtue”? Or an aside such as, “(When pitcher plants and Venus flytraps trap insects, it’s the bugs’ nitrogen they’re after.)” There are references to “poisoners’ corridor”, “malfunctioning molecules “and ”one oared rowboats”. One of the clearest explanations of the basic concept of electron shells is a bus metaphor.
True science that avoids the pop fiction version and makes the real thing fascinating reading.
The analogies and explanations of things as confusing and complex as the layering of electron shells and complex protein folding in terms which anyone can understand. Even though the book is intended to be read by those with little to no knowledge of chemistry, as a veteran of AP Chemistry I learned immense amounts from this book. Even if you know all there is to know about chemistry, this book is full of humor and history, and narrative all interwoven with a satisfying educational experience. The stories of the elements are ordered by topic, rather than time period or elemental number, which aids the natural feeling of the book- flowing from one story to another.
My personal favorite was the story of Mendeleev. A brilliant chemist, one of fifteen siblings, whose mother recognized his potential as a young boy, and rode 1400 miles on horseback just to admit her son to a university. After becoming a brilliant student, Mendeleev’s career became a race against other great scientists to create a comprehensive list of all of the elements known to man. But the difference between Mendeleev’s invention and the others of the time was that he included not only the elements known to man, but also those unknown. Mendeleev left gaps and blank spaces in his periodic table for the elements which had not yet been discovered. Not only did he create the most accurate periodic table yet, but he made accurate predictions of the properties of many of the missing elements. In one such case, he publicly denounced the discovery of a new element until the scientist redid his experiments to prove that Mendeleev was right...and he was.
I give this book five stars. There aren’t many negatives about this book. At times, I believed the book would slow down. Maybe it’s just because I enjoy such things, but there is always a description of someone’s life story, some political conflict of the time, some chemical or physical challenge which had to be overcome, or a fact I didn’t know - the book never seems to slow. The flow of the story is fantastic, it’s educational, and consistently engaging. This book is definitely going on my top ten. If you don’t like being bombarded with information, this book may not be for you, but give it a shot. It’s worth the time.