The Book – The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Author –  Sam Kean

Published on – July 12, 2010

Published by – Little, Brown and Company 

This book can be described as the story telling at its best. The author, Sam Kean describes the evolution of the periodic table with real life stories on how the elements were discovered by their inventors. Kean narrates about the lives of these inventors such as  Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and how their findings impacted on the industry as well as their personal lives. For example, how the  theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer facing comparative disadvantages owing to her sex, though she won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her outstanding work.

Then this Pons and Fleischmann story about “Cold Fusion” might be one of the top stories that this book carries.  In 1989, two electrochemistsMartin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, reported that their apparatus had produced excess heat of a magnitude they asserted would defy explanation except in terms of nuclear processes. Kean describes how this experiment made and unmade Pons and Fleischmann within a few months of time, from being a part of historical scientific breakthrough to being a part of a well-orchestrated con act.  

Pons and Fleischmann with their apparatus of “Cold Fusion” experiment

From “Cold Fusion” story of Pons and Fleischmann, Kean makes his way to introduce pathological science by narrating the story of William Crookes. Due to the grief of the tragic loos of his brother, William Crooks has turned to spiritualism to try to communicate with his brother. He published “Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena Called Spiritual” in 1874 and his coworkers thought he was crazy. Crookes eventually left the spiritual research and returned to science and focused on other topics. He finally ends up being a key contributor to the body of knowledge of chemistry.

The theme of each chapter – politics, money, war, the arts, health, toxins, radiation and so on – is prescribed by groups of elements in the periodic table and the things they tell us about the nature of matter; about the stardust origins of the elements; about the compounds they make and why some elements are more reactive than others; and why the table falls into a pattern so obvious that its begetters were able to predict the characteristics of elements not yet identified. The pace is enthusiastic, the tone and language are pitched at the young or the non-chemical and the examples are pleasingly unexpected.

Kean tells the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. Many scientists were attempting to be the first people to reach the South Pole, but a team led by Roald Amundsen had already reached it. The Amundsen team safely returned from the journey, but Scott’s team was delayed at the pole due to snow flurries and fuel supplies lost due to the high temperatures. Robert Falcon Scott and his companions died on the South Pole.

Kean discusses elements that were put through extreme temperatures to be able to get a sample. Xenon and krypton were put to temperatures as low as −240 F. Kean explains how laser beams are produced by yttrium and neodymium. Kean states that the most powerful laser has more power than the US and it uses crystals of yttrium spiked with neodymium. While lasers produce visible light, masers do not, instead produce microwaves. Masers were considered impossible until Charles Townes worked on them, earning him a Nobel Prize in 1964.

Kean should get the credit for coming up with a book on the subject of chemistry which even a non-chemist can read end to end in a one go due to Kean’s demonstrated ability of top story telling.