June 7, 2020

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean.

A Great Read!

High school chemistry class was never like this… most of us first met the elements as a curious set of blocks on a chart, a series to be memorized and organized. A few of us may occasionally wonder “Why is Tungsten W?” or “why does the periodic table have that funny double castle turret shape?” only to be met with a stern-faced reply from of students or perhaps even teachers.

Enter this week’s review, The Disappearing Spoon: True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean, out from Little, Brown and Company. Mr. Kean takes us on a personal journey through the history of the periodic table, starting with his own fascination with mercury as a child and showing us how elements have shaped history. Even if you thought you’d heard all the tales of scientific discovery and intrigue, I’ll wager that this fascinating book has a few new ones in store for you… for example; did you know that europium is used to foil counterfeiters? Or that a high school student once tried to build a working thorium reactor in his parents’ garden shed? Or that molybdenum was the secret ingredient that gave samurai swords their legendary strength, and that the Germans were sure to procure a supply from the US for their railway guns prior to the start of World War I? Such tales abound in The Disappearing Spoon, making it hard to put down as reams of scientific history are revealed. Elemental symbols preface each chapter as the author explores such corners of the periodic table as coinage metals, the rare earths and the poisoner’s corridor (would-be mystery authors take note!) …and speaking of poisons, even more bizarre-but true tales abound, such as archeologists tracing the Lewis & Clark expedition by latrine pits contaminated by mercury laxatives, or the medieval use of reusable antimony pills!

But beyond these complex tales, the author delves into the predictive power of the periodic table as first envisioned by Mendeleev, as well as the emergence of quantum and nuclear theory and the growing political role that elements played on the 20th century stage. I don’t think I’d ever read a description for the layperson of quantum theory as concise as Mr. Kean’s.

The method in which history and science can get co-opted in favor of political agendas is highlighted by such tales as the Cold War battle over element 104 (which eventually became Seaborgium) or how the memory of Gandhi has been commandeered in the battle over the iodization of salt. Certainly, the addition of iodine to table salt or fluoride to water has been hailed as public health victory by most, and a secretive fifth column effort by only a scant few.

…and The Disappearing Spoon itself? Without inducing too many spoilers, I’ll just note this favored parlor trick of the 19th century played using a curious characteristic of the element gallium;


Do put The Disappearing Spoon on the top of your summer science-geek reading list. Will we ever reach the vaunted Island of Stability? Will the familiar shape of the Periodic Table need revising, and could it be organized in any other way? What roles will the elements play in the future of humanity? Give The Disappearing Spoon a read before that Fall chemistry class starts…I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a book as thoroughly as this since The Age of Wonder. This was one tale I was sad to see come to an end!