The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of the Periodic Table by Sean Kean
394 pages (346 of content, but the endnotes are diverting, enlightening and overall worth reading)
Much more engaging than your high school chemistry class
I debated whether or not to review this book here. After all, the story of the periodic table and its elements spans the surface of this planet, so no particular geographical peg exists. By that argument, it doesn’t really fit this blog’s theme. Here’s why I posted my review anyway: the scientific community does not operate in a vacuum. The Curies, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Linus Pauling…none of these luminaries or their colleagues could miss the prejudices, economics and politics surrounding them. The people who practice science in the field or in the lab are immersed into circumstances familiar from history (e.g., fleeing the Nazis). There is world history here. In fact, the author tells us:
The periodic table embodies our frustrations and failures in every human field: economics, psychology, the arts—and as the legacy of Gandhi and the trials of iodine prove—politics. No less than a scientific, there’s a social history of the elements.
The Gandhi story to which Kean refers above is included with some detail in this book. In 1930, Gandhi made his famous Salt March to protest British taxation of salt. He encouraged followers to make their own salt by simply allowing seawater to evaporate. Unfortunately, this kind of salt is not iodized, meaning that people who used so-called “common salt” were more prone to birth defects, and mental retardation. Wealthier, Western nations had begun to supplement their populations’ diets with iodine by adding it to salt. Given Gandhi’s status within India, convincing some people there to consume iodized salt has been a struggle. Each of the elements appearing on the periodic table has some story attached to it.
It’s not all political strife and hand-wringing in this book, though. The title refers to the peculiar element gallium, discovered and characterized by Frenchman Lecoq de Boisbaudran in 1875. Gallium is a metal with melting point 84ºF. Other than a surprisingly low melting point, solid gallium looks much like aluminum. Kean tells us that a standard joke among chemists is to mold gallium into spoons, provide them with tea for one’s guests, and watch their shock as the spoons appear to dissolve in the hot beverage. Strangely, my dad, who is a chemist by training, never mentioned this gag—and he once dyed the cat green with food coloring, so it’s not as if he lacks a sense of humor, so I’m suspicious the spoon trick is just an intellectual exercise.
However, my favorite of Kean’s larger themes in this book is the value of personal connections within the scientific community. Greatness seems to beget greatness among scientists, as very often big ideas come from people who studied under the previous generation’s people with big ideas. For example,Pierre and Marie Curie’s daughter and son-in-law, Irene Joliet-Curie and Frederic Joliet-Curie, were also Nobel laureates. The Curie family draws the greatness-begets-greatness phenomenon into sharp relief, but they are by no menas the only example. Also correspondence among famous names also occurs frequently. The push-pull of casual debate or heated rivalry among scientists fuels their imagination and informs their work.
Yes, there is science in this book, but consider reading it even if science wasn’t your thing in school. For one thing, Kean offers a much more lucid and entertaining explanation for the phenomena he describes than your high school texts ever did. He leads with the heroes and then tells you why they cared about whatever is unique about a particular element. I grew up with a certain comfort level with science, but I’ll admit to skimming the more esoteric bits about the “Island of Stability”. That said, that topic isn’t such a big chunk of the book that ruined it for me. Consider adding this engaging collection of stories to your high school-age kid’s summer reading list.
Photo Credit: Public domain image created and posted by klare82 to Pixabay.com