Neil Gussman

The Disappearing Spoon

Tales of chemistry, from the heroic to the absurd.

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If you have never balanced a chemical equation, if you think chemical bonds are long-term investments in a maker of turpentine or Teflon®, then you may have missed the flurry of books based on the periodic table published in the last several years. You could be excused for thinking Sam Kean has chosen an arcane subject—the map of the chemical elements—for his 400-page book.

The title and cover art are suitably retro. In fact, the old-style title and subtitle—The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements—have almost as many letters (106) as the periodic table has named elements (112 and counting).

For those of us inside the world of chemistry, the first reaction to Kean's book (if you'll pardon the pun) is "another one?" But this young, gifted storyteller has written a book that shares only a chemical icon with other recent volumes on this theme. Kean presents the stories of the elements in all their human drama. The result is a delightful book of interwoven tales that will give even the most highly trained chemist some of the real breadth, history, and drama of the "Central Science." It is also a book that can be read on Southwest Flight 469 from Las Vegas to Baltimore to help pass five hours in an aluminum (Element 13) cylinder with 141 other carbon-based (Element 6) life forms.

Kean weaves together the lives and times of notable savants and scoundrels of chemistry to tell the stories of elements. Chapter 8 opens with fifteen scientists on the cover of Time magazine—the "Men of the Year" for 1960. In the first four decades of the 20th century, Americans earned 20 Nobel prizes in science. In the 1940s and '50s, more than twice that number, 42, earned the coveted prize in half the time.

Then Kean dives into the search for Technetium, the 43rd element and the most difficult to discover of the 92 elements that exist outside nuclear reactors. In the decade before World War II, a couple who were German scientists and Nazi sympathizers, Walter and Ida Noddack, claimed to have discovered Element 43 but were proved wrong. Others tried and failed. Then Emilio Segre, an Italian Jew who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to America, pinned down the elusive element. Two decades later Segre was on the cover of Time.

After lauding Segre and recounting some of the details of his escape from the fate of Jews under Mussolini, Kean takes Segre down a peg. Explaining how the impetuous chemist missed discovering another element, Kean ties that mistake to the great blunder that led the great American chemist Linus Pauling to miss the structure of DNA. Pauling went on to become the only recipient of two individual Nobel prizes—for Chemistry and Peace—but James Watson and Francis Crick beat Pauling to the discovery of the structure of DNA. In a delightful (and disgusting) aside, Kean says DNA was first discovered almost a century earlier, in 1869, by a Swiss chemist who "poured alcohol and the stomach juice of pigs onto pus-soaked bandages until only a sticky, goopy grayish substance remained." The goop leads to stories about Phosphorus (Element 15) and on through the periodic table. Writing about Pauling, Kean says:

He was the Leonardo of chemistry—the one who, as Leonardo did drawing humans, got the anatomical details right for the first time. And since chemistry is basically the study of the forming and breaking of bonds, Pauling single-handedly modernized the sleepy field. He absolutely deserved one of the greatest scientific compliments ever paid, when a colleague said Pauling proved "that chemistry could be understood rather than being memorized" (emphasis added).

Kean merits the same compliment. The Disappearing Spoon shows that chemistry can be understood in all its rich history of competition, discovery, achievement, and tragedy. In an ideal world where science was central to high school and college learning for all students, Kean's book would be required reading before all the dreary daily details create a lasting, dull impression of chemistry.

And if this delightful book leaves you wanting to know more about how the periodic table works, pick up a copy of The Periodic Kingdom by Peter Atkins. The two books complement each other very well.

Neil Gussman is communications manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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