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Oncology Times:
doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000451395.62471.3e

Books: ‘THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements,’ by Sam Kean

Young, Robert C. MD

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I must confess that I have given very little thought to Mendeleev's periodic table since high school chemistry and college physics. While the periodic table is a scientific marvel, it tends to be cold, obscure, and more interesting as a tour-de-force than as a practical real-world utilitarian document. Sam Kean's likely goal in The Disappearing Spoon is to squeeze some life out of the old masterpiece and rekindle some excitement about the 118 elements currently known.

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Mr. Kean became a lifelong admirer of mercury, that shiny liquid metal, as a boy, and he went on to achieve honors in physics and a Master's degree in Library Science (don't ask). He now writes for Science, the New York Times magazine, and Air and Space, and has been featured on National Public Radio.

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In this, his first book, he provides the reader with an engaging romp through the periodic table, and along the way showers us with accounts of scientific treachery, poisons, explosives, money, petty politics, world history, and sexism. His is not a comprehensive and methodical exploration of every element, but rather an entertaining effort to allow the reader access to some of the more engaging stories hidden within the periodic table of elements.

He notes that the universe is 90 percent hydrogen and about 10 percent helium and that the other 116 elements make up only about 0.04 percent of the remainder. Young stars contain only hydrogen and helium, and as they cool, other elements appear and disappear. Many do not exist in nature, and some once existed and no longer do so. It is to these latter 116 that Kean focuses the remainder of the book.

What unfolds is a remarkable collection of narratives about scientific discovery, intrigue, chauvinism, and murder. We learn that Mozart probably died of antimony poisoning; Enrico Fermi succumbed to pulmonary disease from exposure to beryllium; Europium is placed in the Euro to fluoresce under laser light; and the CIA planned to poison Castro by planting thallium in his socks.

The book's title comes from the curious properties of gallium, which resembles aluminum and sits just below it on the periodic table. Gallium molds easily but has a melting point of 84 degrees. As a result, a Gallium spoon melts when exposed to hot tea or coffee or even to the human hand.

Kean does not shy away from some of the more distasteful examples of sexism in science. Most of us are familiar with the story of Rosalind Franklin and DNA, but Kean introduces us to Maria Goeppert, a German woman who struggled even to enter a PhD program in her own country. After she moved to the United States with her chemist husband, she was unable to find an academic position. After the war she finally got an unpaid Professorship at the University of Chicago. Her work led to our understanding of the necessary balance between protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Announcing her Noble Prize in 1963, the newspaper headlines read “San Diego Mother Wins Nobel Prize.”

Another example was Marie Curie: After winning two Noble Prizes, she was rejected for membership in the French Academy of Sciences. She later died of aplastic anemia from her radiation exposure.

Kean includes some monumental scientific mistakes made by great scientists, including Linus Pauling with his triple helix and Lord Kelvin with his underestimate of the earth's age. We encountered these episodes in Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio, a book I earlier reviewed in Oncology Times (11/10/13 issue).

In the Chapter entitled “Elements in Times of War,” Kean explores the remarkable story of Fritz Haber, a German chemist who in 1900 was able to extract nitrogen from the air and convert it ultimately into fertilizer. Even by World War I, millions had been saved from starvation with the use of industrial fertilizers. Haber went on to utilize the process for making explosives and worked on chlorine-based gas warfare. In 1919 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and the following year was indicted as an international war criminal because of his chemical warfare work. Before World War II, Haber had discovered Zyklon A, a potential insecticide. Nazi Germany exiled Haber for his Jewish roots, and he went on to develop Zyklon B, which was used in the death camps.

In his chapter on the Cold War, Kean introduces us to the quirky race between the Americans, chiefly at Berkeley, and the Soviets at an isolated facility 80 miles from Moscow. They rushed to fill in the remaining gaps in the periodic table, and the Cold War mentality spilled over into seemingly childish arguments over the names for these evanescent “elements on paper.”

Kean even tells us about a Nobel Prize given for a mistake: Enrico Fermi wrongly reported that he had discovered Niobium and other transuranic elements when he had actually witnessed uranium fission and failed to recognize the difference. While Fermi was an unquestioned genius, Edwin McMillan clarified the error and won the Nobel Prize in 1951. The Nobel Prize committee, reluctant to ever admit a mistake, gave McMillan the prize for the chemistry of transuranic elements.

In this reader's view, Sam Kean accomplishes what he set out to do in The Disappearing Spoon. He has provided a constant stream of intriguing science, told in a conversational style that makes the reader eager for the next surprising adventure.

Along the way, the book does delve into the way certain elements behave in the manner they do. For example, the reactivity of the elements has much to do with the state and stability of the electrons and the bulkiness of the nucleus. Helium with two electrons, protons, and neutrons is very stable and unreactive. In contrast, Astatine with an atomic number of 85 exists only transiently and has never been viewed. That said, Kean does not overload the reader with chemical fine points.

This is not a text that tries to explain all of the characteristics of the various elements and the chemistry behind their unique differences. Rather it attempts to weave a rich and entertaining story of the elements with “true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements.”

The book is a charming and well-crafted collection of fascinating facts and anecdotes about elements both well-known and unfamiliar. The book, full of science, hubris, greed, and genius, turns a rather dull and academic table into something that comes alive for the reader. Demitri Mendeleef would be pleased.


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