December 5, 2010

The Disappearing Spoon

A book about the Periodic Table of Elements sounds boring, I know, but this one is so not.  Gallium is the element that you can make into the shape of a spoon and it will look exactly like any other shiny metal, but it's low boiling point will cause the spoon to dissolve in a cup of hot tea, hence the title. (You can view this phenomena on Youtube if you wish).

So Kean takes us on a survey of the Periodic Table by the different groupings and relating the fascinating ways the elements are related.  We also get wonderful stories about their discoverers and the relationships involved with these people as well.  Much like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, it's these stories that make the book.

That's the beautiful thing about science.  Some of the people are weasels, some are almost saints, but they're all just human.  But over the years the process wins out and the truths emerge and the connections are made.  People individually are a mixed bunch.  But put them together and give them the tools of science, and there's no telling what they'll achieve.

You really need to read this with a copy of Thodore Gray's book of the elements to provide the visuals (though Wikipedia is a help as well).  And don't forget about the wonderful Periodic Table of Videos which adds another dimension to the story.  Those three things together would make a kuch more interesting high school chemistry class.

It's the stories that you remember (or at least I do, being no chemist) and not always the ones you'd think.  Of course I already knew about Linus Pauling and his two Nobels.  I knew he was one of the smartest people ever (although am more than skeptical of his vitamin promotion).  I did not, however, know about his deep gracious humility when it came to his not only admitting his mistakes when it came to the race for the structure of DNA, but his promotion of the winning team of Crick and Watson, ensuring their own Nobels.

The elements and the discoveries are, of course, amazing.  But it's the people and the process that make the endeavor, and this book, the fun ride it is.

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe

The Periodic Table of Videos