Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Title          : The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of  Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Author      : Sam Kean
Publisher  : Little, Brown and Company
Pages       : 400

ISBN         : 10-0316051640

Few of us would ever associate the periodic table of the elements with high intrigue. The story of how we came to discover and understand the elements touches on topics that range from the hot centers of stars to human folly. The Periodic Table is one of man's crowning scientific achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession.

The author Sam Kean clusters the elements not just by their physics, but by their character. There's a "Poisoner's Corridor" chapter that follows a hapless geek into a radioactive misadventure, for example, and a great economics lesson offered through the rise of aluminium. Literature buffs might be surprised to learn of Goethe's own connections with the early history of the periodic table, from the chapter "Artistic Elements".

We learn that Marie Curie used to provoke jealousy in colleagues' wives when she'd invite them into closets to see her glow-in-the-dark experiments. And that Lewis and Clark swallowed mercury capsules across the country and their campsites are still detectable by the poison in the ground. Why did Gandhi hate Iodine? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of Cadmium? And why did Tellurium lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

Collective, the tales of  "The Disappearing Spoon", do, however, convey an uneasy sense of just how many human lives have been lost over our ignorance of the elements. Sure, there are plenty of exploding lab incidents throughout history, but there are also mass poisonings and other atrocities that could have been prevented with simple scientific understanding. Kean leaves readers with a satisfying evolutionary sense of the periodic table and its future.

He describes the rise of the semiconductor industry; the connection of wars to the discovery of new elements; and the practice in colonial America of putting a silver coin in a milk jug to prevent the milk from spoiling. Readers also learn that Wilhelm Röntgen thought he had gone insane when he first discovered X-rays; and that the talented chemist Maria Goeppert-Mayer was nevertheless billed as a “mother” rather than a scientist when she won the Nobel Prize.
Review Text Courtesy:  http://www.goodreads.com, http://www.mediabistro.com,
http://www.americanscientist.org, http://www.nytimes.com.

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