For most people, the periodic table of the elements brings to mind high school science classes, a twinge of anxiety, and, let's be honest, a general sense of boredom and bewilderment. In The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements Sam Kean changes all that, bringing the elements alive by giving the dish on the scientists who worked to discover them, the politics behind it, and what it meant to the world at large. He also peppers in a fair bit of scientific information and explanations, but it is well hidden behind the entertainment.
Kean chronicles one group of elements at a time, telling the fascinating and little told stories behind the periodic table. From the races to be the next to claim the discovery of a new element to the endless drama over naming rights, there are plenty of stories to be told. Kean manages to work in just enough information about chemistry and physics to give you a solid understanding of how the periodic table works and why it was created, without overloading you with scientific principles or jargon.
The title anecdote was one of my favorites: because its melting point is so low, a favorite lab prank was to fashion a spoon out of gallium, so that they next unwitting scientist to stir his tea or coffee would find that his beverage had eaten his spoon. And how can you not love the story of the endemic jealousies of scientists' wives when Marie Curie used to pull their husbands into closets during dinner parties to show them her glow-in-the-dark experiments. Or the story of Wilhelm RÃ¶ntgen, the winner of the inaugural Nobel Prize in Physics and the father of the modern X-ray, who, upon discovering that with his new apparatus he was able to see through books, wooden boxes, and his own hand, locked himself in his lab for weeks, convinced he had gone completely crazy.
This book is filled with countless more stories of mad-scientists and scientists who just think they've gone mad. It is a highly entertaining read, and sneaks in a fair bit of educational value to boot.
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