The Periodic Table at Play

Thomas R. Tritton reviews Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.

By Thomas R. Tritton | April 1, 2011
A periodic table of cupcakes

A periodic table of cupcakes.

Science History Institute

Sam Kean. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. 400 pp. $24.99 cloth, $14.99 paper.

The periodic table is such an icon of science it’s no wonder there are scads of books written about it. General chemistry textbooks, as expected, tackle the table in straightforward scientific detail. More extended accounts, like those by John Emsley and Eric Scerri, enrich the treatment with historical analysis and social context for each element’s discovery. And a recent book—rendered beautifully on the iPad, by the way—by Theodore Gray is an appealing mixture of both the art and the science of the periodic table.

Into this cornucopia of works about Dmitri Mendeleev’s element organizer comes The Disappearing Spoon, a new book by Sam Kean. The reference in the title is to gallium, which melts at a relatively balmy 84 degrees Fahrenheit—thus a spoon made of this metal that looks like aluminum will dissolve if you place it in a hot liquid. That particular elemental factoid clues the reader in to the tone of the book—centered on science but enlivened with numerous diversions toward the witty, the quirky, and the mischievous.

The beauty of the periodic table is that its structure and organization predicts all manner of important recurring chemical properties: electronegativity, atomic radius, electron affinity, ionization energy, metallic or nonmetallic character, valence, and so on. The transcendence of this framework is usually lost on beginning chemistry students who struggle to grasp the deeper significance of the table. Kean’s book will be of no help to them, as its focus is on the stories rather than the intricacies and implications of the table itself. This doesn’t mean you won’t learn a lot of chemistry if you read The Disappearing Spoon—I surely did—only that what escaped you about atomic regularities as a student probably will still escape you when you’ve finished the book.

But stories are what bring science to life, and Kean tells his yarns magnificently. All the great names that lie at the heart of chemistry’s contemporary history are here: Mendeleev, the Curies, Gilbert (G. N.) Lewis, Fritz Haber, Glenn Seaborg, Linus Pauling. Physicists like Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Albert Einstein make appearances, and even Charles Darwin figures tangentially in the story of the periodic table. Thus, the narrative of the chemical elements truly embodies the whole of the history of science.

Alas, while their discoveries shimmer, the lives and character of the discoverers do not always follow suit. Mendeleev was a moody anarchist often unwilling to share credit with others who made important contributions. Lewis let his ambition to win the Nobel Prize supersede his ability to get along with practically anybody—and he never won. Haber laid the scientific groundwork for chemical warfare, but all the suffering that ensued never seemed to bother him. And even my own scientific idol—Pauling—comes across as arrogant and egotistical. Kean’s treatment renders these intellectual paragons thoroughly human, and like all people, in possession of irritating faults. Surely this is a better portrayal of scientists than familiar archetypes like the dull but brilliant brainiac and the geeky nerd.

When reading an account of history, one hopes for two things: accuracy in rendering the facts and good writing to enliven the tale. Both are here, although not without a flaw or two. My reading didn’t uncover any scientific misstatements, but for the record Kean’s claim that James Watson and Francis Crick were “two gawky graduate students” wasn’t the case. This minor flaw is forgivable and totally overshadowed by the quality of Kean’s writing. The book reads easily even when confronting more challenging subjects, and Kean’s way with clever turns of phrase keeps you reading way past the time when you should be doing something else. “Promiscuity is carbon’s virtue” (p. 35) is a wonderful double entendre. But my favorite is his portrayal of how slowly the atomic properties change when scanning along the rare-earth lanthanides: “Moving along the row is like driving from Nebraska to South Dakota and not realizing you’ve crossed the state line” (p. 26).

Read a general chemistry text if you want to focus on the technical details of the periodic table. And read Scerri if you want a scholarly analysis of the historical and philosophical interplay at work. But read Kean if you want good science and a playful attitude—a winning combination for most.