'The Disappearing Spoon'

The Elements of Style, and Everything Else, from a Born Storytellter

by David Maine

27 September 2011

This is a breezy and enlightening overview of everybody's favorite high-school chem class poster.
 
cover art

The Disappearing Spoon

Sam Kean

(Back Bay Books)
US: 6 Jun 2011

Sam Kean is a born storyteller, and The Disappearing Spoon is chock full of stories. Like all the best tales, there’s a plenty of mystery, a good deal of suspense, some lively personalities and fair-sized egos, a bit of romance, a bit more betrayal, and a healthy dose of unexpected surprise. There’s also a less common array of storytelling elements; namely mercury, lead, arsenic, uranium, fermium, plutonium and so forth.

Kean’s book is subtitled True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Like many pop-science writers, Kean aims to take something esoteric—in this case, the organizing principle of the most fundamental forms of matter known to science—and make it accessible to the average reader. He thoroughly succeeds, but beyond this, he raises the profiles of the inquisitive men and women who pioneered this science, and heightens our appreciation for all the hard work, flashes of insight and sheer common sense that went into the formualtion of the Periodic Table.

Along the way, naturally, he tells us a good number of tales. Like other writers in the genre—Bill Bryson, Mary Roach—Kean recognizes that open-mouthed admiration for scientific truth will only take a reader so far. The drama that lies behind those truths, or more properly behind the uncovering of them, is what engages readers the most.

Take Max Schott, a German living in the US during World War I, who proved a ruthless point man in Germany’s aggressive bid to snap up the world’s molybdenum, a fair portion of which resided in Colorado. Schott very nearly sent the owner of the relevant mine, one Otis King, to an early grave with his aggressive attempts to seize control of the mine. Why the frenzy? When mixed with steel, the resulting molybedenum-enriched alloy is capable of withstanding enormous amounts of heat and pressure, factors that proved critical in the development of Germany’s enormous artillery guns. (Sad to say, nothing focuses scientific invention quite like war.)

Or take Charles Hall, an undergraduate student at Oberlin College in Ohio, who singlehandedly figured out how to obtain pure aluminum out of messy ores. In 1886, at the age of 23, Hall ran an electric current through a solution containing dissolved aluminum compounds, and presto!—purified aluminum collected at the bottom of the vat. Besides making Hall rich, the discovery had the effect of collapsing the price of aluminum, until then the world’s priciest metal. So impressive was it that just two years earlier, in 1884, builders used aluminum to cap the very tip of the Washington Monument.

Or consider one Marie Sklodowska, a precocious scientific mind as a teenager who also had a penchant for joining political agitation groups that made her few friends. Bouncing from Warsaw to Krakow to, finally, Paris, Sklodowska found a measure of peace at the Sorbonne, where she earned her PhD and fell in love with a fellow named Pierre Curie. In 1903 the couple shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work with uranium, which was inextricably linked to the Periodic Table.

Then there are the political battles involving what names should be given to newly discovered elements. The book is filled with such dramatics, both small-scale and large. The Periodic Table was formulated over decades and continents, surviving such historic paroxysms as the Russian Revolution, World Wars I and II, the Cold War and its end. It should be no surprise, then, that nationalistic concerns should weigh heavily at times.

Besides this, hovering over everything lies the specte of the Nobel Prize committee, whose awards often provided de facto recognition for an achievement, but whose withholding could mean the opposite. The political—in both senses of that word—ramifications of the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physics is a subtext that runs through this history.

Kean relates all this in a lively, upbeat style that makes the book as easy to absorb as a cool glass of water absorbs salt. (See what I did there?) Wisely, he omits most of the technicalities of the science involved, opting for general, easy-to-manage metaphors and plenty of end notes for readers who want to puzzle through the technicalities or pursue further reading. In explaining a complex chemical reaction, Kean tells us that “both the… rhodium atom and the target 2D molecule were sprawling and bulky. So when they approached each other to react, they did so like two obese animals trying to have sex.” Early on, we are told that alkili metals “form an alliance of interests with the halogen gases.” Well, no, not really—but we understand what he means.

He also has a knack for digging up the amusing one-liner. He quotes Einstein’s well-known argument against quantum physics, “God does not play dice with the universe,” only to offer as well as the rebuttal from Niels Bohr: “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” (For the record, it appears that Einstein got this one wrong.)

Inevitably, some chapters are livelier than others, but overall The Disappearing Spoon is science writing at its best: well informed, eminently readable and informatively entertaining. Kean writes with a passion and enthusiasm for his subject which is infectious without ever dipping into hero-worship or geekdom. Highly recommended for readers who like their science leavened with a little storytelling, the better to make it go down smoothly.

The Disappearing Spoon

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