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the disappearing spoon

24 october 2016

I've been reading (and reviewing here) some excellent popular science books of late. But they're all between two and five years old. Why this odd selection? It's what appears in my public library's e-book collection. However books get marketed to and chosen by the library or its e-book vendor, they tend not to be today's bestsellers (or perhaps, just as with print editions, today's bestsellers are usually checked out). The selection is a little random, a lot eclectic, and possibly not vetted by human beings at all; algorithms often lead me from one book I've checked out to another one like it. By letting the machine direct me to these middle-aged popular texts, I don't perhaps get up-to-the-minute scientific information. But as Simon Knell says, "the scientific book is an impossibility; almost immediately it is a history book." If nothing else, I am getting a very good look at exigent issues in science of the early 2010s.

Sam Kean's Disappearing Spoon (2010) may not be as exigent as some, but it makes up for that in entertainment value. Kean works his way through the periodic table of elements, recounting some amazing story about nearly every one of them, and several stories about the more fascinating elements. He does not go by atomic number from hydrogen upwards, and of course the table is not really arranged that way. He will sometimes go sideways, sometimes up and down columns. More often, Kean chooses a theme that exemplifies human interactions with pure elements. This is not a book about compounds or alloys, for the most part. It's about the pure properties of pure substances, which are even weirder than their manifold compounds.

The Disappearing Spoon is thus a miscellany, but the chemical elements themselves are a miscellaneous bunch. The genius of Mendeleev's periodic arrangement was to highlight one of the ways of making order out of their miscellany; the various color-codings that realign the elements in various versions of the Table are ways of perceiving other orders, in a multi-dimensional matrix that is one of the great wonders of science and of life. In fact, Kean closes the book with an invitation to browse through many alternative renderings of the Table that are currently in use, and to imagine new ones.

You name the theme, and Kean can assemble elements along it. Basic physics and chemistry; the history of human discovery of the elements; their uses in technologies old and new; poison, medicine, politics, finance, art. The final section of the book treats 20th-century "element science" as a process of continually discovering the unimaginable.

I found one section on "pathological science" of particular interest. Pathological science, as Kean uses the term, resembles real science in that its practitioners are earnest, its methods logical and mathematical. But its premises and conclusions are sometimes nuts. Kean's prime example is the 19th-century English scientist William Crookes, who was no piker in the element business. Among other groundbreaking work, he discovered the element thallium. But as a young man, Crookes had become prostrate with grief after the death of a younger brother. He tried to contact his brother via mediums, and became convinced that he could measure auras and ectoplasms and what-not. He presented methodologies and designed instruments to calculate the strength of psychic fields. All completely nuts, but in a stone-sober kind of way. Crookes later seemed to recover, and weirdly enough became a pioneer in the study of plasmas – not ghostbustery ones, but the shape taken by the stuff of stars.

Crookes devised numerous kinds of vacuum tubes to study electromagnetic emissions and radiation, and the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen was messing around with a Crookes tube when he noticed that the resulting rays allowed him to see the bones underneath his skin. Unlike Crookes in the seance room, Röntgen assumed that he was having delusions, and proceeded to investigate from the premise that he needed his head examined. We now know that Röntgen was lucid, and had discovered X-rays. Kean holds Röntgen's method up as a corrective to gun-jumping that characterizes pathological science. (By contrast, he points to the cold-fusion craze of 1989 as the most famous recent descent into the pathological. And cold fusion gives him a chance to introduce one more element, the substance that was supposed to be the key to limitless energy: palladium.)

Röntgen won the Nobel Prize; in fact he won the first given for Physics (1901). Crookes and the cold-fusion guys did not. Many, many others celebrated in The Disappearing Spoon won Nobels in either physics or chemistry (a few of them in both). At times the book seems almost to be organized around the Nobel Prize instead of the periodic table. But heck, there's an element called nobelium now. The dynamite magnate's legacy spurred much of the development of modern science.

Kean pays homage at one point to Primo Levi, who wrote the best of all books about the periodic table, Il sistema periodico. The link comes via cerium, the flint-like element that Levi traded for food in Auschwitz. Levi's book, which ranges across his life and career as a chemist, is sometimes funny, sometimes whimsical, but on the whole far more serious than Kean's. Yet while Kean aims to entertain, he shares many themes with Levi: the inexhaustible wonder of nature, the protean aspect of chemistry, the profound links between the animate and the inanimate.

Oh, and that "disappearing spoon" of the title? It's a parlor trick, a spoon made out of gallium. Such spoons look nice and shiny, like stainless-steel spoons, until you put them in a hot drink, whereupon they melt instantly and collect in mercury-like drops at the bottom of the cup. Fortunately gallium is non-toxic, or at least not nearly as toxic as mercury, so this can be done harmlessly; and unless they drink the gallium, you can collect it and play the same trick over and over. Gallium-spoon molds can be had for as little as sixty bucks on the Internet. Gallium not included.

Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], 2010. Kindle edition.