The Disappearing Spoon 1st (first) edition Text Only

by Sam Kean

Hardcover, 2010

Call number

546 KEA



(2010), 391 pages


The periodic table of the elements is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, obsession, and betrayal. These tales follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and all the elements in the table as they play out their parts in human history. The usual suspects are here, like Marie Curie (and her radioactive journey to the discovery of polonium and radium) and William Shockley (who is credited, not exactly justly, with the discovery of the silicon transistor)--but the more obscure characters provide some of the best stories, like Paul Emile François Lecoq de Boisbaudran, whose discovery of gallium, a metal with a low melting point, gives this book its title: a spoon made of gallium will melt in a cup of tea.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member BlackSheepDances
I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry. Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!). It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that related at all to real life. If I had
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a teacher like Sam Kean, however, that could have been different.

Fast forward too many years, and now I'm engrossed in this nonfiction 'memoir' of the Periodic Table of Elements. Like any good biography, this has scandal, lies, fraud, madness, explosions (!!!) and lots of name-dropping. Kean explains just what the periodic table is, but in a format that reads more like a novel, with anecdotal details to liven it up. Mercury pills were used by Lewis and Clark for their health? Yep, and you can trace their path (um, at least their bathroom trips on their journey) by where scientists have found unusually high amounts of mercury in the soil. The poet Robert Lowell? Did lithium ruin his work by making him sane? Who knew the lies and fraud and mind games played by scientists intent on getting a Nobel Prize!

There's no getting around it, this is a book that makes you think. It's not simple and it assumes you have a basic knowledge of science. Some areas were over my head, but not for long. Kean is a wonderful teacher with a sassy wise guy voice that livens up any of the deeper areas.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
Sam Kean is not a chemist, and he seems to have had little help from a chemistry-literate editor in writing this collection of stories about most of the elements of the periodic table. To a certain extent, his chatty and colloquial style helps to bring chemistry to an audience that is
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science-phobic (the c-word does not appear in the title or subtitle, presumably for this reason). On the other hand, he has thrown together a bunch of anecdotes without much regard for their credibility and many of the analogies he uses to explain science are mis-aimed. For example, when describing how atomic clocks work, Kean says that cesium atoms play the role of the mainspring of a clock or watch. In fact, they are analogous to the balance wheel or the pendulum. He says that lithium batteries in a pocket full of change can short out, causing a dangerous amount of heat. This is said to be a result of the reactivity of lithium. Well, that is sort of true. But a mercury battery can be shorted the same way, with the same result, despite the fact that mercury is not known for its reactivity. Describing Pasteur's work on the chirality of tartaric acid, he claims that a beam of light from a vertical slit shone into a solution of one of the isomers will deviate away from its original orientation. Intrepid experimentalists who try this will be disappointed, and those who merely read about it will have swallowed a serious misconception. It was frustrating to me that he republished the story of the Radioactive Boy Scout (Hal's Pick of October, 1998), dressing it in scientific respectibility. Kean's organization of the book is idiosyncratic, to say the least ("Elements of War", "How Elements Deceive", and equally uninformative chapter titles), and his descriptions of elemental properties are very often confused with those of their compounds. Kean also does not understand the difference between monochromaticity and coherence as laser properties. Despite its many, many shortcomings, chemistry teachers may find "The Disappearing Spoon" to be a useful collection of anecdotes, but caveat emptor.
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LibraryThing member bragan
The Disappearing Spoon is a lively, anecdote-filled stroll through the periodic table of the elements. To some extent it's about chemistry and nuclear physics and the history of how scientists have figured out the principles of those sciences, come up with the periodic table as a way to organize
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the elements, and discovered new elements to fill in the spaces on it. But, as the subtitle might suggest, it's not just all about the science. There's a lot of human interest here, including stories about the personal lives and rivalries of scientists, as well as discussions about various elements' role in such fields as warfare, history, biology, and art.

It's all very readable and often quite entertaining, and is very much aimed at the scientific layman (although I imagine that having taken a high school chemistry course -- even a dimly remembered one -- is likely to be of some help). Most of the science, and many of the stories about scientists, were things I already knew, but despite that I still found it enjoyable and interesting, and those who are less familiar with the subject matter are bound to learn some fascinating new things.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about the title, it refers to a practical joke popular among chemists: You make a spoon out of gallium and give it to a friend to stir their tea with. Gallium looks just like aluminum, but it melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit, so that when they put the spoon into the hot tea, it melts and disappears. See? Chemistry is fun!
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
Cleverly, Kean starts off gently, drawing us in with an elaborate explanation of the basic atomic theory we all learned in high school and making us feel smug. This is followed by a dozen or so chapters stuffed with fascinating, accessible anecdotes about the elements on our periodic table: their
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discovery, their discoverers, their fascinating (and sometimes freakish) properties, their times, triumphs, tribulations, and scandals. It’s amazing how much entertainment a competent storyteller can weave out of such seemingly inert material! This is, of course, because the actual course of scientific discovery is anything but inert, a tale of geniuses and idealists – yes - but also conmen, madmen, accidental heroes, villains and visionaries, politics, economics, philosophy, faith, greed, love, war, and passion, as Kean’s tales make abundantly clear.

Indeed, the subject matter was so diverting that I was nearly 300pgs into the story before I realized that somewhere along the way I had wholly shed my smug and was officially hanging on for dear life! Not Kean’s fault, technically speaking: the gradual ramping up in information density merely parallels the history of the periodic table itself, which began as the plaything of chemists but, as atomic numbers climbed inexorably past 100, has become more and more the servant of theoretical physicists. What a long way we travel from scientist practical jokes in chapter 3 (due to its relatively low melting point, spoons fashioned out of gallium dissolve when used to stir hot coffee – the “disappearing spoons” of the title) to this sentence plucked at random from chapter 19: “So if super-chemists someday create feynmanium-plus-one, un-tri-octium, would its inner electrons become time travelers while the rest of the atom sits pat?”

And yet, thanks to Kean’s relatively clear explanations and uncomplicated prose, even sentences like this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm or thwart my resolve. As I finished the final page and stared one last time at the periodic table handily reprinted in the end pages (now well-thumbed and soiled), I recognized that – yes - even the extra concentration required to comprehend the final chapters was worth it. Not only did The Disappearing Spoon keep me entertained, but thanks to the author’s clear and patient explanations I am now startlingly comfortable with topics I once imagined incomprehensible. I can’t wait to share my wealth of new anecdotes with friends and acquaintances! (Which, I realize as I write this, is probably either a damning indictment of my social skills or suggests the disturbingly high level of nerdiness within my social circle.)
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LibraryThing member norabelle414
Each chapter explains the history of and/or anecdotes involving a handful of elements. Some elements are explained ridiculously in-depth, others are merely mentioned in the life story of the person they are named after. The main problem with this concept is that many of the larger elements are
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boring. They are hunks of grey metal-ish stuff found in the ground, and they don't do anything. Other elements are so amazing that they really need at least their own book, if not more than one book.

Where this book really shines is the in-between elements. Europium is used in paper Euros because it is invisible but glows under a black light. Gallium looks like any other metal, but has a melting point of 84 degrees F (great for pranks). The first semiconductors were made of germanium instead of silicon. And on and on. Really interesting, entertaining stuff.

The writing leaves a bit to be desired. It gets dull when discussing complicated topics. The author has a tendency to drop in unnecessary analogies involving pop culture references, which make things more confusing and will render the book less relevant in 10-20 years.(Not that the science will be the same in 10-20 years, which I guess makes the book’s relevance irrelevant, hm?)

Other complaints include: the periodic table at the back only lists abbreviations, and not the full names of the elements. If someone has all of the abbreviations memorized, they do not need to read this book. I know more of them than most people, but I get lost in the lanthanides and actinides. Also, the “footnotes” are in the back of the book instead of at the bottom of the pages, which is endlessly annoying.

But those are mostly nit-picky personal preferences. I came away from this book feeling entertained, and knowing significantly more about things like the history of chemistry, the future of chemistry, quantum mechanics, and radioactivity (although I don’t know if that will hold true for people without previous education in chemistry to build upon).
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LibraryThing member meganelizabeth
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. Sam Kean changes all that, bringing the elements alive by giving the dish on the scientists who worked to
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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 Röntgen, 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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LibraryThing member tangborn
The youthful author gives a somewhat whimsical look at the chemical elements, explaining all of the entries in the periodic table starting at the top with Hydrogen. He describes how each was discovered, by whom and all the controversies and conflicts that surrounded them. He uses a great deal of
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analogies from everyday life to help the non-scientist comprehend the scales and complexities of the elements, particularly as he reaches the larger and more rare. They don't always work, and can be a bit forced at times. For example, he tries to compare the search for a particularly rare element with Bill Gates search for spare coins on the sidewalk (Not really a meaningful analogy). Nonetheless, it was fun to read what someone can do with a relatively dry subject with a little creativity.
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LibraryThing member ImBookingIt
Anyone with an interest in science, whether you are just curious or science is your life's work, should read this book.I admit, I thought this book would be more of a curiosity, a sit down and leaf through it kind of book. Instead, I found it utterly engrossing on many different levels.I really
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enjoyed the stories-- the stories of people and personalities, of discoveries that were searched for over many years and those that accidentally fell into place, of friendships and partnerships and rivalries.I also enjoyed the science itself. I consider myself to be a scientifically inclined, so this isn't a surprise. I've got a solid background in chemistry and physics, even if I haven't thought about it in years, so the concepts weren't new. The first few chapters are much heavier on the science, lighter on the stories. If they get to be too much, flip further in and read a chapter. If that's more to your taste, then just skim through the rest of the first section. I do think this book is accessible to those with minimal scientific background-- I think my daughter learned enough in 5th grade science about atomic structure to understand most of the stories.I also think there is enough there for those that have been dedicated to science their entire lives. In this case, the names will be familiar, but I think the stories will be new, and they will even more fully appreciate following the paths in the history of the various elements.I'm thinking Christmas presents here, and I'm strongly considering buying some copies for my daughter's school.
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LibraryThing member eleanor_eader
Look, I know this will out me as the most oblivious creature flailing around on the planet, but did everyone else know that elements decay into other elements, quite routinely? One or other of them might slough off a few bits here and there and wake up as lead? Never mind, just go about your day.
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The universe made itself out of hydrogen, by the way.

Sam Kean writes about science like a storyteller who happens to know a bit about it, while the reverse is actually true: he’s a scientist who knows a bit about storytelling; he brings to the reader a deliciously lively overview of the creation and role of the periodic table of elements, jumping around it in his enthusiasm, and we get to forget, for a day or two, that we don’t know anything about science and become absorbed in his remarkably detailed dip into a chart that I once considered as interesting and relevant to my schooling as a map of the moon.

Not being overly imbued with brain, my retention of cold facts has always left something (95% counts as ‘something’, shut up) to be desired. Kean’s anecdotal approach to the science, history and characters behind the imposing grey chart that hung in my least-favourite classroom, lit up my information receptors (both of them), coloured everything with context and invoked a heretofore unheard of fascination with things normally labelled ‘Beware: science’.
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LibraryThing member tahoegirl
One of the best non-fiction books I've read, and definitely the best chemistry book! I'm a science nerd and I learned so much about how and who discovered many of the elements. One thing I really liked it that it wasn't too technical so people not that into science would enjoy it too.
LibraryThing member Othemts
This book is a history of science based on the periodic table. Kean goes through the elements discussing their discovery, the stories of the scientists who discovered them, and the element's place in human society. A lot of the book is anecdotes about chemists, but they're good stories. There are
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also a lot of interesting connections, both among the elements and the people who work for them. A nice, easy-to-read popular science and history work that enlivens the periodic table for even the most curmudgeonly humanities major.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
The disappearing spoon of the title is one made of gallium. Gallium has a low melting point, and a favorite chemical student prank of the past was to cast a spoon of this metal and then hand it to someone when they served tea, in order to watch the face of the tea taker as the spoon melted in the
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tea cup. This is an example of the elemental anecdotes served up in this history of the periodic table and the discovery of elements.

Kean, a popular science writer, walks us through the development of the periodic table element by element. He explains how the table is structured- it’s all about electrons; how many electrons an element has, and how they are arranged. This produces elements that are stable or which form compounds easily, or which decay, giving off radiation in the process. Some of the elements aren’t even found in nature; they have to be created and observed in the lab because they only last a few seconds.

The author manages to make this understandable even to a chemistry failure like myself. He livens it up with stories of how the elements were discovered (or created) and the personalities of the people who worked on them. He tells us what the different elements are used for and how they can help- and hurt or kill- us. He helps us understand why silicon became the semi-conductor of choice, why gadolinium is used in MRIs, and how selenium, a necessary micronutrient, can drive you mad. If you like the history of science, you’ll love this book, and you’ll absorb some of the hard science along with it.
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LibraryThing member meghayden
Just the right amount of nerdy. Reviews had led me to believe that this was just a collection of stories, so I was surprised to find that a fair amount of chemistry is sprinkled throughout. For someone who took chemistry a long time ago and remembers none of it, this was both informative and a fun
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LibraryThing member 77book
This is an enjoyable book overall. I have always liked books where I learn things and although I am many years from studying chemistry the information was well presented and easily understood. The book rambles about from one topic to another and the author does not shy from veering into interesting
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sides. Although the Chapters do seem to go together, the presentation of the elements follows the ideas of the author and not a structure imposed directly from the Table. If a reader is looking for a book strictly about science this is probably not good, but for the audience that is after a mix of information as well l as entertaining information and history the book is a gem. Many of the people discussed in the book have been recognizable by name, but the information gleaned from the stories fleshed out the history I knew only fragments about. It is hard to say why any area or item was better than others and I suspect this is dependent on the reader’s current knowledge but no parts let my mind wander and I found myself sneaking off to learn even more. Recommended reading for any reader who likes a bit of entertaining information on chemistry, physics and the history of these fields.
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LibraryThing member sarah-e
Sam Kean has a weird, scandalous, or otherwise fascinating story for each of the periodic table's 112 named elements. The Disappearing Spoon includes great stories that would please any kind of reader, but I particularly enjoyed Kean's elaborate descriptions of scientific principles and discoveries
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- Nobel Prize winning stuff that is likely way over a layperson's head. He presents it in such an accessible way that it's readable and enjoyable to a wide audience, whether armchair scientists or college professors.

A book about chemistry is far out of the norm of what I read but I enjoyed this so much I would recommend it to anyone, and I look forward to what Kean writes next.
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LibraryThing member MusicalGlass
A pop science review of anecdotes involving the history of and personalities associated with the periodic table of elements. There are stories about bubbles, lasers, the science of taste, poisonous gases, and quantum shenanigans. Entertaining in a “chemistry can be interesting” kind of
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Bertrand Russell once used the medicinal facts about iodine to build a case against immortal souls. “The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin…,” he wrote. “For instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure.” In other words, iodine made Russell realize that reason and emotions and memories depend upon material conditions in the brain. He saw no way to separate the “soul” from the body, and concluded that the rich mental life of human beings, the source of all their glory and much of their woe, is chemistry through and through. We’re the periodic table all the way down.

Harpoon UFO Wheat
Berkshire River Ale
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LibraryThing member bontley
I was hoping for a Bill Bryson, everyman-accessible overview of the periodic table. It was more technical than that, with the later portions of the book difficult for me.
LibraryThing member eireannach
As someone who is interested in science this book was fascinating, providing me (a non-chemist) with a good overview of the elements. I was somewhat annoyed, though, by the author's style, which I found intrusive.
LibraryThing member slug9000
I was torn between giving this book three stars versus four stars. I finally settled on four stars for a couple of reasons. First, for anyone with even a casual interest in the elements on the Periodic Table, this book is definitely interesting. It discusses the history behind a bunch of elements
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that I never knew served much purpose. I learned in this book that there are molybdenum mines in Colorado, for example. Up until I read this book, I didn't know anything about molybdenum. There are also some really interesting stories about other elements and how they lead to huge advances in science. The author has a really great sense of humor, which is evident throughout the book.

The downsides to this book, and why I considered giving it three stars, are as follows. First, it is very jumbled. It doesn't go in chronological order, or even in ascending proton order. I get that there are reasons for this - some elements have a noteworthy historical or chemical relationship with another element even when they are far apart on the table. The author does group them together in a logical way, but I did find it frustrating to go back and forth to different time periods.

The second and more significant downside is that the author does get a little too technical. I took chemistry in college, but I am not a chemist or physicist by trade and I found that some scientific detail was lost on me and made the book drag. The author did do a good job of distilling some complicated facts into layman's terms, but sometimes he just went on a little too long with the technical detail. Chemists and physicists reading this book will undoubtedly get these sections more easily than I did, but I am not sure that the technical detail added a lot of color to the book. This is, basically, a history of the periodic table. The technical aspects are covered in far more detail in academic works, so I did sometimes feel that the author went into too much technical detail when providing an outside source for more information (for those interested) would have sufficed.

However, the reason I am giving this book four stars is because I did like the history and I did learn a lot about the various elements. And more importantly, this book references so many historical events that I felt compelled to do more reading about some of the topics he touched on briefly. My list of to-read historical nonfiction books grew while I read this, and I ended up reading more about certain topics on Wikipedia. I appreciate that the author was able to drum up so much interest in various lesser-known historical events or people, and there is a lot of value in that.

Also of note: I bought this book on the Kindle and I will say that it is one of the better formatted Kindle books I have read in awhile. The footnotes are easily accessible, and the author puts links in some of his footnotes that tablet or Kindle Fire users can click on. My only suggestion is that you bookmark where you are in the book if you are switching between devices. Syncing to the "last page read" will bring you to the footnote section and not the last location in the actual text.
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LibraryThing member fakelvis
The Disappearing Spoon is interesting enough: across a couple of hundred pages we're led through the periodic table with stories and facts about their discoveries, discoverers, and use.

However, for some strange I could not engage with the book. This is exactly my type of topic, but I was slightly
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bored throughout. What's worse, is that I can't quite put my finger on why.

My first guess at a reason why I may not have been as engaged as I could have been: the book is chock-full of stories and interesting facts, but there is absolutely no coherent narrative running through the book as a whole or the separate chapters. Yes, there's a narrative, but it just wasn't very interesting. I needed more.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A loose history of the ongoing discovery of the elements and what it means to our understanding of the universe and our place in it. The first couple of chapters are somewhat technical but meant for the layperson, with additional science mixed in as the book goes on so the reader can understand how
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scientists build on what they know to push the limits further. Some of this is fairly unnerving: currently, work is being done on the possibility that the universal constants on which Einsteinian physics (or any other we know) is built may not hold true throughout the universe or at different times.

The book is laid out rather strangely, with a periodical table on the last two pages (after notes and index and where the reader might never notice it). And this is a case where having the lengthy narrative footnotes located with the main text would have worked better than grouped at the end. Still, lots to learn here, and told with a sense of humor.
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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: The Disappearing Spoon is a history of the periodic table, and the elements it contains.

No, wait, come back!

This book is the history of chemistry, yes, but it is not technical at all, and is much more focused on the people involved, and how the realms of chemistry have intersected with
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the course of human history. The first part of the book ("Orientation: Column by Column, Row by Row") is the most focused on the pure science, explaining what the periodic table is, what makes one element different from another, and how their structure determines not only where they are on the table, but also what properties they will have. But even here, there's an emphasis on Mendeleev and the other scientists who figured these relationships out. From there, the book talks about different elements grouped more by their impact on civilization than their chemistry. There are chapters on nuclear fission and the history of the atomic bomb, on elements and medicine, on poisons, on money (including a possible chemical explanation for King Midas's mythical golden touch), and finally some chapters on the current and future state of chemistry as it moves beyond the confines of the periodic table.

Review: I thought this book was great. It is admittedly right up my alley - I love this kind of microhistory, plus toss in the history of science, and a ton of great trivia, and I am a happy girl. And while I am a scientist, I am not a chemist - I've taken plenty of chemistry courses, but the most recent of them was… 13 years ago? - so I was thrilled by Kean's straightforward explanations of how chemistry works, which is understandable to the layperson without sacrificing scientific accuracy (which is a devilishly tricky balance to achieve!)

"Oxygen, as element eight, has eight total electrons. Two belong to the lowest energy tier, which fills first. That leaves six left over in the outer level, so oxygen is always scouting for two additional electrons. Two electrons aren't so hard to find, and aggressive oxygen can dictate its own terms and bully other atoms. But the same arithmetic shows that poor carbon, element six, has four electrons left over after filling its first shell, and therefore needs four more to make eight. That's harder to do, and the upshot is that carbon has really low standards for forming bonds. It latches onto virtually anything." (And there you have at least the first two weeks of an organic chemistry class, in a nutshell.)

So: this book was remarkably readable and straightforward in presentation. But it was also readable in terms of its content: it contains tons of interesting information and fascinating stories, amenable to reading in short chunks, but also always easy to pick back up and read more. I loved learning about how our knowledge of chemistry came about, especially in the age before fancy lab equipment and high-powered computers. I loved learning about where the term "computers" came from in the first place. Lise Meitner's story both fascinated me and made me sad (everyone always points to Rosalind Franklin as an example of women in science being passed over for Nobel Prizes, but Meitner is a much better example, since she was still alive at the time that work she contributed to received the award.) My mind was blown by some of the theoretical and cutting-edge physics and chemistry introduced in the latter chapters. (Like: why are mathematical constants constant? What if, somewhere in this universe - or another one - π was equal to 3.14158 instead of 3.14159? I can't quite wrap my head around it, but it's fun to try!) And I gleaned tons of tidbits to add to my store of trivia (for example, the process behind why you sometimes find a really old Hershey's Kiss with that weird powdery brownish-grey stuff on it is the same process that may have doomed Scott's expedition to the South Pole). And really, what more can I ask out of a book? 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Loved it. Highly recommended to anyone who likes microhistories, whether you're a scientist or not. And if you're not, please don't be daunted by the chemistry; Kean handles it very clearly, and makes it relevant to the other far-flung bits of history.
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LibraryThing member breic
I didn't love it. Lots of random anecdotes, often not very well connected to anything, and with poor pop-science explanations. Way too many stories about where element names come from—which to me just felt like lazy writing. Fun to start, but it gets worse.

> bright colors are dead giveaways of
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lanthanides, and the mine in Ytterby was unusually rich in them … More elements (seven) trace their lineage back to Ytterby than to any other person, place, or thing. It was the inspiration for ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, and erbium. For the other three unnamed elements, before running out of letters ("rbium" doesn't quite look right), chemists adopted holmium, after Stockholm; thulium, after the mythic name for Scandinavia; and, at Lecoq de Boisbaudran's insistence, Gadolin's namesake, gadolinium. Overall, of the seven elements discovered in Ytterby, six were Mendeleev's missing lanthanides.

> Meteors are solid iron. The good news is that, chemically, iron and uranium don't mix, but iron and lead do, so meteors contain lead in the same original ratios as the earth did, because no uranium was around to add new lead atoms … when he'd cleaned up his lab enough, he came up with what's still the best estimate of the earth's age, 4.55 billion years. Second, his horror over lead contamination turned him into an activist, and he's the largest reason future children will never eat lead paint chips and gas stations no longer bother to advertise "unleaded" on their pumps. Thanks to Patterson's crusade, it's common sense today that lead paint should be banned and cars shouldn't vaporize lead for us to breathe in and get in our hair.

> Ghiorso and Seaborg—who discovered more elements than anyone in history and extended the periodic table by almost one-sixth.

> Heavier elements such as uranium have trouble keeping positive protons bound in their tiny nuclei, since identical charges repel, so they also pack in neutrons to serve as buffers. When a heavy atom fissions into two lighter atoms of roughly equal size, the lighter atoms require fewer neutron buffers, so they spit the excess neutrons out. Sometimes those neutrons are absorbed by nearby heavy atoms, which become unstable and spit out more neutrons in a chain reaction.

> Marie [Curie] found a slight reprieve from her rocky personal life when the cataclysm of World War I and the breakup of European empires resurrected Poland, which enjoyed its first taste of independence in centuries. But naming her first element after Poland contributed nothing to the effort. In fact, it turned out to have been a rash decision. As a metal, polonium is useless. It decays so quickly it might have been a mocking metaphor for Poland itself. And with the demise of Latin, its name calls to mind not Polonia but Polonius, the doddering fool from Hamlet . Worse, the second element, radium, glows a translucent green and soon appeared in consumer products worldwide. … Only Russia, the many-time conqueror of Poland, bothers to manufacture polonium anymore. That's why when ex–KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko ate polonium-laced sushi

> The bronze is shiny, but with overtones of copper. You wouldn't mistake it for anything else. The shine of brass is more alluring, more subtle, a little more… golden. Midas's touch, then, was possibly nothing more than an accidental touch of zinc in the soil of his corner of Asia Minor.

> The French once displayed Fort Knox–like aluminium bars next to their crown jewels, and the minor emperor Napoleon III reserved a prized set of aluminium cutlery for special guests at banquets. (Less favored guests used gold knives and forks.) In the United States, government engineers, to show off their country's industrial prowess, capped the Washington Monument with a six-pound pyramid of aluminium in 1884

> Only when the uranium cooled down did water trickle back in—which slowed the neutrons and restarted the reactor. It was a nuclear Old Faithful, self-regulating, and it consumed 13,000 pounds of uranium over 150,000 years at sixteen sites around Oklo, in on/off cycles of 150 minutes. … When Shlyakhter compared the Oklo nuclear waste to modern waste in 1976, he found that too little of some types of samarium had formed. By itself, that's not so thrilling. But again, nuclear processes are reproducible to a stunning degree; elements such as samarium don't just fail to form. So samarium's digression hinted to Shlyakhter that something had been off back then. Taking a hell of a leap, he calculated that if only the fine structure constant had been just a fraction smaller when Oklo went nuclear, the discrepancies were easy to explain.

> Inner electrons orbit much more quickly around a nucleus than electrons in outer shells. The exact speed depends on the ratio between the number of protons present and alpha, the fine structure constant… As that ratio gets closer and closer to one, electrons fly closer and closer to the speed of light. But remember that alpha is (we think) fixed at 1/137 or so. Beyond 137 protons, the inner electrons would seem to be going faster than the speed of light—which, according to Einstein's relativity theory, can never happen. This hypothetically last element, 137, is often called "feynmanium," after Richard Feynman, the physicist who first noticed this pickle.
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LibraryThing member dduning
I didn't necessarily understand everything in this book, but I throughly enjoyed it and learned a lot. Good book for science novices with inquiring minds.
LibraryThing member JohnMunsch
An interesting trip through the periodic table with stops at every element along the way. Covers a little chemistry, nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, and more but at a very high level so it never bogs down. Best fact I learned from the book; that you and everything around you (the carbon,
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nitrogen, oxygen, iron, silicon, etc. surrounding you) is no more than .04% of the entire universe. The other 99.96% is entirely the hydrogen that started out the universe or hydrogen that has been converted to helium inside of stars.
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