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May 31, 2010
Volume 88, Number 22
pp. 61-62

For The Love Of Chemistry

The periodic table is a springboard for lively stories about the central science

Reviewed by Audra J. Wolfe

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THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table, by Sam Kean, Little Brown, 2010, 400 pages, $24.99 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-316-05164-4)

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Sam Kean traces his fondness for chemistry to a childhood habit of breaking thermometers. As he watched his mother once again try to corral the mercury droplets scattered across his bedroom floor, he found himself transfixed by the way that the globules seemed to swallow each other up.

Soon enough, he was looking out for references to mercury, that peculiar liquid element, in his chemistry, physics, and history classes. Fortunately, the only side effect all this mercury produced in Kean was a passion for stories about chemistry that is on fine display in his book "The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table." It is a book intended to forever put to rest the idea that the science is boring.

From actinium to zirconium, Kean uses the elements of the periodic table as springboards to discuss everything from the age of Earth to Mark Twain's typewriter. Although the chapter titles announce an arrangement based on loose topics (elements of war, elements used for money, poisonous elements, etc.), make no mistake that this is a book organized primarily by the author's enthusiasms. The "disappearing spoon" of the title, for example, refers to a parlor trick that involves serving tea to guests with gallium spoons (melting point 84 ºF), a discussion that appears alongside Robert Bunsen, atomic spectra, Mendeleev's marriages, and Chinese porcelain. Readers who can keep up with this frenetic pace will find themselves rewarded with fresh and intriguing connections on virtually every chemical topic imaginable.

The inherent logic of the periodic table offers the perfect excuse for Kean to explain a range of basic scientific concepts that might otherwise be difficult to reconcile with such a chatty style. His explanations of subatomic structure, the stellar origin of the elements, radioactive decay, and chirality are clear and cogent. Kean is at his best when searching for metaphors to describe these scientific ideas. Electronic energy levels, we learn, are like elevators that can only stop at—not in between—floors. The scientific technique used for reaching extraordinarily low temperatures just fractions of a degree above absolute zero is "basically a sophisticated way of blowing on a spoonful of soup."

Less successful is Kean's occasional use of what might only be called "philosophical metaphors" for the process of science. His application of Irving Langmuir's concept of "pathological science" to explain the strange case of cold fusion is particularly muddled, and the episode's placement in an unfortunate chapter on "mad science" only adds to the confusion. Even so, the problem here is Kean's attempt to wax eloquent on the system of science, not the underlying concepts. His explanation of pathological science may be mysterious, but his discussion of cold fusion itself, including its scientific appeal, is crystal clear.

Kean loves a good story, and his account teems with ripping yarns, colorful characters, and the occasional tall tale of chemical invention. His take on World War I ranges from the obligatory discussion of Fritz Haber and gas warfare to the more surprising setting of Colorado's Bartlett Mountain, where a "limping outlaw named Two-Gun Adams" tried to keep a molybdenum mine out of the hands of a German mining conglomerate. Apparently two guns were not enough to keep the Germans away, and Colorado-mined molybdenum strengthened the steel used in the Germans' notorious "Big Bertha" artillery through most of the First World War.

Given the number of elements with patriotic names (polonium, gallium, francium, and americium, for example), it is perhaps not surprising that other stories of political intrigue follow in Kean's book. He also highlights the human character of science, as when microbiologist Gerhard Domagk proved the efficacy of prontosil, the first antimicrobial drug, by injecting it into his daughter. Following in the long tradition of self-experimentation, Domagk turned to the drug when he had no other options: His daughter was on the verge of death, or at least on the verge of losing her arm, after a puncture wound from a sewing needle left her with a nasty streptococcal infection. She lived, and the era of sulfa drugs had begun.

Chemists may particularly welcome these stories as just the thing to enliven cocktail parties, family gatherings, and introductory lectures. But be aware that some of these are, in fact, tall tales.

Kean's account of Niels Bohr's legendary proof of the characteristics of hafnium using only the tools of quantum mechanics is a case in point. "According to lore," Kean tells us, Bohr's prediction that element 72 would behave like zirconium, a transition metal, rather than like lutetium, a rare-earth metal, forced chemists to reconcile their science with quantum mechanics. The problem with this story is that it's not exactly true. Other scientists preceding Bohr had made similar predictions without the benefits of quantum mechanics. In this case, Kean fesses up, but his use of the story has the inevitable effect of extending, rather than disarming, the legend. One wishes the author had been more judicious in separating fact from fiction.

Despite the reference to the periodic table in its title, the book is not a history of the periodic table or a systematic exploration of the science of periodicity. Aside from two excellent opening chapters meant to orient nonscientific readers to electron configurations and their relationship to atomic behavior and a concluding chapter that surveys alternative arrangements, the periodic table itself is a bit player in Kean's account.

It eventually becomes clear that when the author says "the periodic table," he means, "chemistry." At least, I think that's what he means—otherwise, phrases like "Not every breakthrough in periodic-table science has to delve into exotic and intricate states of matter" hardly make sense. In this particular case, the "periodic-table science" breakthrough in question is the discovery of subatomic particles made possible by bubble chambers. A similar sleight-of-hand seems to be at work in a section titled, "Element Science Today and Tomorrow." Are consumers of popular science books really taken to be so afraid of chemistry that the word is nearly banned from a book on the topic? And if so, why assume that those readers would be any more willing to purchase a book on "periodic-table science"?

Whether this aversion to using the word chemistry came from the author himself, his agent, or his publisher, Kean has nevertheless produced a love letter to the central science. "The Disappearing Spoon" is premised on the idea that chemistry and the chemists who practice it are inherently interesting subjects with transformative powers to enlighten and entertain. Readers of C&EN presumably already know this—but what explains the curious lack of popular science books on chemistry? While museums, podcasts, science fairs, and similar outreach efforts undoubtedly play critical roles in the public understanding of science, they mostly succeed in reaching audiences who are predisposed to be interested in the topic. By packaging this book as "anything but chemistry," Kean and his publishers clearly hope to reach a different audience. Let us hope that they are successful and that Kean, a reporter for Science, continues to bring the excitement of science out of the lab and into the homes of the reading public.

Audra J. Wolfe is a freelance editor and writer. She is based in Philadelphia, where she also lectures at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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