I like to start my day with a nice, hot cup of tea, a habit that would make me the perfect target for prank-loving scientists. For years now, chemists have taken great glee in forging spoons out of gallium, a mineral which melts at just 84 degrees. Pranksters use this low melting point to their advantage by giving gallium spoons to their guests along with their Earl Grey. The spoons dissolve in the tea, and the pranksters rejoice.
It's a terrible way to treat your guests (let alone a cup of tea), but it lends itself perfectly to the title of science reporter Sam Kean's first book, “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.”
Originally a physics major before moving into journalism, Kean says the idea for “The Disappearing Spoon” came to him over breakfast when he realized that there was "a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table." (He doesn't mention if his breakfast involved spoons of any kind.)
Kean may not hit every element in “The Disappearing Spoon,” but he does write about several dozen of them, and the stories range from funny to inspiring, and from sad to cringe-worthy.
Through it all, Kean uses tales of the elements to shine a light on our modern world. For example, we wouldn't have the world we have today without computers, all of which were made possible by the advances in using silicon made by Bell Labs electrical engineers William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. But the tale of these three engineers also illustrates the jealousy and pettiness embodied by some scientists. Shockley abandoned his research, which his assistants Bardeen and Brattain turned into the world-changing transistor. That didn't stop Shockley from taking credit, or from essentially forcing Bardeen out of further transistor research. (The three men later shared the Nobel Prize for "their" invention.)
Other elements with which we would not have our modern conveniences include tantalum and niobium which, when combined to form coltan, are essential to today's mobile phones. But their use comes with a price: wars between 200 ethnic tribes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, resulting in the deaths of 5 million people and immense ecological devastation. Kean doesn't blame the elements for the conflict, but uses it to show that elements "can also play on humankind's worst, most inhumane instincts."
An element with less real-world impact is element 118 (as yet not officially named). Although physics calculations told scientists that the element had to exist, proving it was another matter entirely. Only a few atoms of element 118 have ever been observed, and that supposedly took smashing 10 billion billion calcium atoms into a target made of californium. Whether this really produced element 118 is yet to be proven, and at least one scientist's reputation has been destroyed by the assertion that he fudged his data.
Speaking of californium, that element was discovered in 1949 by scientists at Berkeley, who also discovered the elements they dubbed berkelium and universitium. This led the New Yorker magazine to declare that they were working on the elements "newium" and "yorkium."
Looking for a more inspirational tale? You can't go wrong with that of Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a German-born scientist who, despite the gender inequalities of the early 20th century, succeeded in proving how protons and neutrons form the symmetrical spheres that make calcium and oxygen such important foundations for life. She never got the full career success she deserved, but her discoveries did earn her the Nobel Prize in 1963.
Beyond the scientists themselves, Kean takes a few chapters to describe the science of chemistry and the nature of elements, and does it better than any textbook I ever studied. Heck, if I'd had this book in my hands in high school, I might have enjoyed chemistry rather than dreaded it. If chemistry wasn't your cup of tea time either, give this book a try. You'll gain a whole new appreciation for it.
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