Did you know that Gandhi hated iodine? Or that Silicon Valley was almost called Germanium Valley? Our producer Rigoberto Hernandez talked about these stories and more with Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon, a book about the stories behind the periodic table. The New York Times best-selling author and frequent Distillations contributor described how Dmitri Mendeleev’s publisher accidentally shaped the periodic table, why gallium is a popular element for pranksters, and what inspired the title of his book.
Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010.
Host: Elisabeth Berry Drago & Alexis Pedrick
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
Original music by Jonathan Pfeffer
Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Alexis Pedrick: Hello, and welcome to Distillations. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis Pedrick: We’ve been busy producing our upcoming season.
Lisa Berry Drago: Which has nothing/very little to do with COVID.
Alexis Pedrick: So we needed a break, and we’re assuming you do to.
Lisa Berry Drago: The season will be launching this summer, but we’ve also been cooking up another exciting venture. This spring, we’re launching a second podcast.
Alexis Pedrick: Don’t worry, Distillations isn’t going anywhere. We promise. It’s just gaining a cousin, a new show called, The Disappearing Spoon. All about fascinating little-known stories from the history of science.
Lisa Berry Drago: What did you think? We were branching out into true crime?
Alexis Pedrick: This episode is an introduction of sorts. Meet Sam Kean.
Sam Kean: My name is Sam Kean. I am the author of five books, including The Disappearing Spoon, which we’ll be talking about today.
Lisa Berry Drago: He’s also a regular contributor to Distillations magazine, and recently launched his own podcast, The Disappearing Spoon, which is now a part of our podcast family.
Alexis Pedrick: That’s right, Distillations is going to keep bringing you the weird and thoughtful narrative deep dives you’ve come to know and love. And The Disappearing Spoon will offer shorter, punchier stories.
Lisa Berry Drago: Like how a debate about tea revolutionized modern medicine, or the story of the woman who pioneered the first personal protective equipment in history.
Alexis Pedrick: This podcast feed is about to get a lot busier. We’ll run Disappearing Spoon episodes beginning in April, and then debut the next Distillation season later in the summer. Stay tuned.
Lisa Berry Drago: To introduce you to Sam Kean, our producer, Rigoberto Hernandez talk with him about his first book, also called The Disappearing Spoon. Published in 2010, this book is timeless. It tells the stories of the famous, and not so famous people who shaped the periodic table.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Thanks so much for ha- coming over, Sam. I really do appreciate talking to us.
Sam Kean: Thanks for having me.
Rigoberto Hernandez: So this book is, Disappearing Spoon, it is about the periodic table, but it’s not like a textbook. It really derives from your passion of the subject. Uh, and how did you like to come chemistry so much? And why do you hope others will as well?
Sam Kean: What I really wanted to do with this book is to just show that the periodic table isn’t just about chemistry. I mean, obviously chemistry is there. It’s in a fundamental part of chemistry, but there’s just so much more on the periodic table. It intersects with art, it intersects with politics, it intersects with war, there’s a chapter about bubbles in there. There’s just so many different areas of life that intersect with the periodic table if you know how to dig a little deeper, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Each chapter has a different theme. Uh, and, uh, you will learn things about the periodic table. You’ll have a better appreciation for it, but what I really think it does is it expands your horizons, and you really understand how fundamental the periodic table is and the elements are to pretty much anything that you’re doing in life.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And what’s so striking is that like, it really did make me look at it differently, even the way that I actually read it. Like, instead of left to right, I started thinking about it more as columns, like you say in your book. And how that’s sometimes as the elements of more connection, if you start looking at them like hor-, um, vertically.
Sam Kean: Yeah. Actually, Dmitri Mendeleev saw, usually considered the father of the periodic table, his original periodic table was tilted on its side. So you would read elements in what are now columns, you would read them left to right. And in some ways that’s a more natural way to arrange the periodic table. It’s just that we’re all kind of used to the canonical version nowadays, which is left to right in terms of numbers. So there are different ways of interpreting the periodic table. Yeah.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And I was surprised to learn that, like, the way that it’s set up is, is deliberate, of course. Like, certain elements are grouped together, but it’s also kind of by accident a little bit. And, and you’ve referenced Dmitri Mendel- Mendeleev. What does this publisher have to do with the shape of the table?
Sam Kean: Well, the story goes that he was writing a textbook, and essentially, uh, she was writing two textbooks. And he was on a deadline, and he spent so much time on the first half of the textbook or the first textbook, that he kinda had to throw everything together for the second one in order to meet the deadline. And he needed a lot of information in a concise form. And after sort of playing around with some different ideas, he came up with the idea of putting them into a table or a chart. And so, it was sort of deadline pressure that forced him to be creative and pushed him to make what we now recognize as maybe not the first, depending on how you wanna define it, but one of the very first periodic tables.
Rigoberto Hernandez: There’s something interesting about the, the Mendeleev. And you say that he’s like the, the, the father of the periodic table. Uh, his rivalries really stood out for me as something that really motivated him. Uh, can you tell us about some of the most famous rivalries?
Sam Kean: Yeah. So if you look at the overall history and the overall development of the periodic table, there were five or six people that actually came up with the idea of something like a periodic table. The basic idea of the periodic table is that you can arrange the elements in certain ways, so that as they get heavier generally, and more dense, as you move on certain properties repeat at regular intervals. That’s the basic idea behind the periodic table.
And other people had recognized that before him. What Mendeleev did was Mendeleev made a better version of it because he had a lot more elements that he could fit into the table. And afterward he spent a lot more time, uh, working on it, refining it, polishing it. I sort of compare it to Charles Darwin with evolution and Einstein with his theory of relativity.
If you look into the history of those theories, Einstein and Darwin weren’t the only people talking about evolution, talking about relativity, but they did a lot more with it. And they sort of had the vision to see how big of a deal it was and how far the consequences extended. The same way with Mendeleev in the periodic table. He wasn’t the only one, but he does deserve to be considered the father of it for those reasons.
And as you said, there were rivalries that sort of spurred him on. Uh, one of the most famous ones involved, and this is another reason Mendeleev gets credit. When there were holes in the periodic table, uh, for elements that they did not know existed at the time, had not discovered yet, Mendeleev had actually predicted that these elements would be found and he predicted the properties of the elements, and, uh, tried to describe them essentially before they’d even been discovered.
And when these elements were discovered a few years after that, it was considered sort of an astounding discovery that this person had seen the properties of these elements before anyone had ever held them in their hand. And why Mendeleev sort of got no rivalry is that he kind of tried to horn in and sort of take credit for the discovery of these elements in the sense that he claimed he had predicted them. And he thought he deserves more credit than even the people who had actually discovered them.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And this is, uh, this is kind of gets, uh, uh, like a fundamental friction between theories and like applied scientists.
Sam Kean: Yeah. It’s sort of a classic scientific dilemma in that, uh, you know, some scientists don’t think that theory is worth a whole lot. They think ideas are sort of cheap and you just need data and real world evidence is all that really counts at the end of the day. On the other hand, if you don’t have a theory guiding your observations, uh, the world’s a complicated place. There’s a lot going on.
You might not know what to look for, how to interpret your results. So there’s kind of this tension all the time and this interplay between what is more important, the theory or the hard data. And in, you know, the answer is probably that we need both and we need them in different amounts at different times.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And, uh, one of the applied scientists who sparred with him was Lecoq de Boisbaudran.
Sam Kean: Boisbaudran. Yeah. Yeah. Something like that. I’m not, French is not my, uh, strong suit either.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Uh, so he is, we know him today as discovering gallium, which, which, uh, Mendeleev predicted as, uh, as an aluminum of types. Uh, can you tell us about specifically his rivalry with him? Yeah, we kind of alluded to it already.
Sam Kean: Yeah. Yeah. So the, uh, Boisbaudran was the one who discovered gallium and he of course thought that he deserved credit. He was the first one to separate it from an ore, first one to hold it in his hand, describe the properties of it and things like that. So he thought he deserved credit. And again, he thought that Mendeleev was sort of honing in and trying to steal credit for it. Where the issue gets a bit complicated is that, uh, Boisbaudran published data about its melting point, its density, things like that.
And Mendeleev came in and said, “Well, based on my predictions and my theory, your data must be wrong,” which was, uh, sort of foolhardy for Mendeleev to do, uh, to say that someone who actually discovered it, uh, had wrong data, whereas the theorist should, Mendeleev thought, uh, should be able to understand the element better than the person who discovered it.
But it turned out that Mendeleev was actually right. And that Boisbaudran had made some mistakes and had to actually correct his data. So this was even more proof in the eyes of the world that Mendeleev’s periodic table wasn’t just a way to arrange the elements or order them. It actually had real predictive power in understanding what these undiscovered elements would be like. So that rivalry, I think, sort of spurred Mendeleev and it sort of convinced people that the periodic table was actually this very powerful thing and not just sort of a chart for convenience.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. A- and speaking of gallium, it’s that element, uh, that, uh, Boisbaudran discovered. And gallium is, has a particular interesting, uh, connection to the name of your book actually. Right?
Sam Kean: Yeah, it does. Uh, so you mentioned, and I believe that gallium sits right below aluminum on the periodic table. And because of that gallium and aluminum have very similar properties. If you had a chunk of gallium and a chunk of aluminum in your hands, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. They’re very similar properties. They look very identical. The only difference is gallium has one unusual property and that it melts at about, uh, 85, 86, 87 degrees Fahrenheit.
So if you were even holding gallium in your hand on a warm day, it would start to melt. It would run between your fingers, which is kind of unusual for a metal to have such a low melting point. And the title of my book, the disappearing spoon actually comes from that property of gallium because it’s a bit of a, I- I- I guess, a classic nerd science prank to make a spoon out of a metal, like a gallium, and then you serve that spoon to somebody with some hot coffee or tea or something like that. And they of course think that, you know, it’s just a regular aluminum spoon until they start stirring the coffee or tea with it, at which point the spoon melts on them. So that’s where the title comes from, The Disappearing Spoon.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Is it safe to drink that by the way? Just curious.
Sam Kean: That, that’s always the follow-up question people have, is, is it safe? Um, it is not. Gallium is not acutely toxic like mercury or something like that. So if you’re around it, it, it’s not bad for you. But it’s still a slug of metal that’s going to be in your stomach. So I assume it would be uncomfortable to drink that, but I don’t think it’s toxic and poisonous the way that other metals are.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Uh, one of the things that I really appreciate about your book is the way that you kind of talk about, uh, elements in a way that’s relatable. Like for example, the way that you described that before we had Silicon Valley, we could have just as easily had germanium valley. Um, can you tell us a little bit about, uh, the story behind, why would Silicon Valley we think of today be called germanium valley?
Sam Kean: Yeah. So g- germanium sort of like gallium and aluminum, germanium and silicon are right above and below each other on the periodic table. Germanium is a bit heavier. So it’s below silicon. And when they were creating some of the very first, uh, uh, micro components, uh, for electronic stuff, like the first integrated circuit and transistors and things like that, they actually used germanium to get them to work.
It was considered an easier metal to work with for the tools that they had at the time. So all of these seminal inventions that we think about in terms of Silicon Valley and sort of the computer revolution, they weren’t actually made and invented with silicon. It was germanium that was sort of the workhorse element that everyone was using. Eventually for various reasons, silicon turned out to be a better, uh, element to use for actual consumer products. But all of the, uh, seminal important work was done with germanium.
And in fact, the first germanium inter, integrated circuit is in the Smithsonian today because it’s considered so important, but you would never find germanium in any sort of electronics nowadays because it just doesn’t work in consumer goods. And so it, it sort, uh, I don’t know how to compare it exactly. It’s sort of like someone who got jilted in a romantic situation where, uh, you know, i- it seemed like it was going to be the one and then you got left for someone else. So I- I think that putting that kind of human face on it makes you understand, you know, how things could have been different in history.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. It’s, it’s this story about like an element that’s forgotten, but if you look a little deeper, it, it, it had, it was such a big, important part of it. Germanium walked so that Silicon can run kind of thing.
Sam Kean: Yeah, exactly. That’s probably a better analogy than what I was, uh, going for there. But yeah, you’re right. I- it is a forgotten element and sort of an unjustly forgotten one because we would not have and be in the world that we have today, if not for germanium, had it not sort of shown the way.
Rigoberto Hernandez: And, and you do, you do that throughout the book. Another one that I really liked was that the Galápagos Island of the periodic table is in Sweden. [laughs]. Uh, can you tell us about, about it? We, we know a little bit about it ’cause we did a whole, uh, project on bear earths. But what is the Galápagos Island of their periodic table?
Sam Kean: I compared the… I mean, Galápagos Island is famous obviously from Darwin and his finches there which, uh, supposedly sort of inspired him to think about adaptation and stuff like that. So it was a concentrated place where, because of the circumstances there, it was an island, it was separate, there was a lot of evolution going on there. Uh, Darwin sort of was inspired there to come up with his big theory.
And I compare this town in Sweden to the Galápagos because there were several rare earth elements discovered there. Uh, one thing I was curious about when I started writing the book was why were there so many elements that had very similar names? There was one called ytterbium, then there was terbium, then there was erbium, they all looked very, very similar and there’s yttrium. And I just wondered why do all these elements have such a similar name?
It turns out they were all discovered in this one spot in Sweden that just happened to have the right geology, a concentration of rare earth elements. And there was a good scientist around who was interested in this topic and wanted to know more about it. So he started looking into it and all of a sudden, all these elements started popping up place after, uh… They started popping up over and over from the research that he was doing. So it was the Galápagos in the sense, it was a very concentrated, uh, uh, bounty of elements and sort of expanded the periodic table in a way that probably did not happen until much later when we figured out how to artificially make elements.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And, and so these are elements like you, you alluded to, these are elements that we can still find, but then there are ones that can be created. And let’s talk about the University of California at Berkeley, which had like an outsize importance in the shaping of their periodic table. Uh, I think a good place to start is with the names Glenn Seaborg and Albert Ghiorso. What did this guys do to the periodic table?
Sam Kean: Basically they created the periodic table in the modern sense. And they did that in a couple of ways. One is, before this there were actually different types of… There are different shapes for the periodic table. Uh, right now we’re sort of used to the one we have, which is sort of the, the castle look with some turrets on the side, there’s a little dip in the middle, and there’s a little bit of a landing strip on the bottom.
Uh, Glen Seaborg, one of the scientists you mentioned was the person who took that landing strip and put it at the bottom like that. Those elements used to be jammed in and he had kind of this, uh, more calender look to the periodic table. So Seaborg actually gave the periodic table its canonical shape. But even more importantly than that, this team at Berkeley was really responsible for discovering so many different elements.
Uh, they started with element 93, neptunium. Then they went on to plutonium and then element 95, 96, 97, just so many elements on the periodic table were discovered and isolated by this Berkeley team. And this marked a shift in that before this, scientists were going out into nature and getting their fingernails dirty, digging these elements up out of the ground. Suddenly if you wanted to make new elements, you had to talk about things like particle accelerators, particle beams.
Essentially what they did is they had a target of one element. They had a beam of another element and they would smash the beam into the target and hope that something fused together and then they would have to quickly isolate, uh, the new elements that they’d created. So it marked a shift in not only the process for finding elements, but sort of what an element is and the fact that we can have artificial elements, we can extend the periodic table, at least in theory for much longer than, uh, the periodic table they had at the time.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And what’s so fascinating about the elements that they discovered is like the naming conventions that they use. So they honor their country, americium I believe it’s called, americium. Then they went to honor like the university, berkelium. Uh, it, it was just, it was like a, a really fun time for them. And the, I think the best illustration of this is like the anecdote you start with in which you talk about The New Yorker talk of the town gossip column in the 1950s in which they said, “You should have named them university, um, of, of, um, californium at berkelium.
Sam Kean: Yeah. Yeah. So there was, there was just a, sort of a fun little, uh, talk of the town where, uh, The New Yorker was expressing in mock horror that, uh, the University of California, Berkeley had basically put its name on the periodic table in naming one element berkelium and another element californium. So they kind of wanted to put their stamp on Berkeley. Uh, and until recently, uh, California was the only state in the United States that had its name ensconced on the periodic table.
They’ve since added tennessine to that. So Tennessee now has one too. But for a long time, uh, that was sort of the only American place, berkelium and californium that were honored on the periodic table. Whereas you did have other places honored in other countries. Uh, you had, as you mentioned, gallium, you had europium, which is named for Europe. Uh, you had francium, which is obviously named for France.
So it was sort of the Americans wanting to put their own stamp on the periodic table. And I can think of a, a couple of, sort of interesting anecdotes about that. Uh, when Glenn Seaborg discovered, I think it was plutonium, but it might’ve been americium, but one of those two elements, he actually was going to name it, something like ultium for the ultimate element. And he, because he thought it was going to be the heaviest element that could possibly be discovered.
So he wanted to put a sort of a stamp at the end of the periodic table. And he was later dissuaded from doing that. And he says, “Thankfully, because I would have looked like a real idiot that I then named that element ultium, ultimatum or something, and then, you know, we had 15 elements beyond that.” So he sort of got saved from himself. Um, and the other thing is that eventually, uh, Glen Seaborg did see his own name on the periodic table because there was an element called the seaborgium.
And then there was sort of a joke going around amongst chemists that you could actually send a letter to Glenn Seaborg just based on elements on the periodic table, because you could send it to seaborgium in berkelium californium in americium in the United States. So I don’t know if anyone ever actually did that, but that was the theory at least.
Rigoberto Hernandez: That’s wild that, uh, they make it seem so easy for them, right, that they can even just name elements like that.
Sam Kean: I, I it’s, it’s I’m sort of jealous actually. Uh, that would, that would be so cool to have your name on the periodic table.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Uh, stayed in Berkeley, but in a different department, that was the chemistry department where Seaborg and Ghiorso worked. There was this [inaudible 00:23:46] a really famous radiology department in which there was an Italian Jewish refugee scientist named Emilio Segrè. Uh, can you tell us about like his story of how he got the job at Berkeley and what that tells us about this, the scientific political persecution of the time?
Sam Kean: Yeah. Segrè was one of the many, many scientists, unfortunately, who sort of got run out of Europe because of fascist politics there and antisemitism. Most of them were German scientists who ended up coming to the United States. Uh, Segrè was Italian, but it was just one of the many, many cases of that, that the United States, it really ended up benefiting from because all of this scientific talent came over and Europe was kind of drained of scientific talent.
And that really marked the shift of in sort of a larger sense where before World War II, Europe really was the center of the scientific world. All of the best scientists. If you wanted to be a top scientist, you had to go over there. You had to do an apprenticeship somewhere. You had to do a postdoc there, if not graduate school there. After that, the sort of center the scientific world did shift over toward North America. And, you know, obviously there are amazing schools and scientists doing work in Europe, but it’s much more even nowadays than it used to be before.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And so he got, he gets a job at Berkeley only after he’s like a year abroad here. And he asked for the professor or like the lab director to hire him and he hired him, but he did so with a super reduced salary.
Sam Kean: Yeah. That was, uh, Lawrence I think that hired him. And Lawrence was a fantastic scientist, but also a very shrewd manager. And I think you could probably make a case that he sort of took advantage of the situation to get a very talented scientist at a very reduced rate because Segrè was basically desperate and had no other options. So Lawrence does not come off looking good in that situation, I would say. He definitely, uh, could have been more generous instead of thinking about the lab budget as kind of the top priority there.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And, and what, like, what did Segrè do that he’s so famous for? I mean, we, we talked about his biography, but what did he actually like contribute?
Sam Kean: So Segrè was sort of famous in that he discovered one of the most frustrating gaps on the periodic table, which is element 43, it’s now called technetium. And for a long time, several different scientists thought they had discovered element 43 and every claim just kept falling apart and falling apart over and over and over. And Segrè and his partner, Carlo Perrier were actually the ones who finally nailed down that very, very frustrating gap.
And they did so in kind of a, either a smart or a sneaky way, depending on how you want to look at it. In that they went to tour a lab, which is actually Lawrence’s lab in, uh, California at Berkeley. And they noticed that there were some molybdenum parts they were using in one of their cyclotrons, which is basically a particle accelerator. They knew that molybdenum was element 42, which is right before technetium, element 43.
And they said, “Hey, you know, those molybdenum parts you’re using that keep getting irradiated in these experiments could we, you know, maybe just take a look at those?” And Laurence said, “Okay, you know, we don’t need these parts anymore.” Handed them over, not realizing that, oh, this elusive element was actually in these parts because they’d been radiated. So it was a very clever thing, uh, for Segrè to do. But I guess Laurence sort of got him back with the, um, uh, the kind of, uh, blow balling him on the salary offer a few years later.
Rigoberto Hernandez: [silence]
[laughs]. Um, let’s talk about like what, as I mentioned earlier, the reason why Emilio Segrè story is so important. I mean, there’s many reasons, but the one that really resonates is the fact that he was persecuted out of Europe by fascists. And he, that was not… He wasn’t far from the only one. And the two other ones that I’m thinking of, uh, or specifically one that I’m thinking of is Lise Meitner.
Uh, she’s an Austrian woman of Jewish heritage who had a really prolific working relationship with a man named Otto Hahn. Uh, and can you talk about this relationship. Uh, and like basically it culminates with Nobel prizes and it culminates with elements being named after someone. Uh, can you tell us a little bit about who they were. It was not a romantic relationship, first of all, we should say.
Sam Kean: Yes. It was not a romantic relationship. It was not like the Curie’s or the Joliot-Curie’s, uh, famously who were husband and wife teams. This was strictly a working relationship between Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn. And essentially they were working in Germany together in the late 1930s. And Hahn was working on some experiments where he discovered, uh, basically atomic vision. He discovered the fact that uranium atoms could split under certain circumstances.
So the nucleus of the atom, it essentially cracks in half and you get two smaller atoms from that. And it releases a lot of energy. And if you harness it properly, you can get a chain reaction that leads to an atomic bomb. But Hahn was the one who first found the basic underlying process, which is the fission, the atoms splitting in the first place. What’s strange though, is that Hahn had discovered the evidence for it, but didn’t know how to interpret it.
So he basically discovered the fact that uranium was splitting, but didn’t understand what was going on. So he turned to his longtime collaborator, Lise Meitner and sort of asked her what was going on. And Meitner was the one who sort of put the, uh, intellectual framework on it and understood, oh, there’s a u- uranium atom. It’s splitting, it’s releasing energy. Here is what’s going on.
So again, this kind of goes back to the evidence theory, dichotomy that we were talking about before, where Hahn had the evidence, but didn’t know how to interpret it and make sense of it. It was really only when Meitner came in and showed him what his evidence meant that everyone understood what a big deal this was. And it’s after this that things get sort of strange in their relationship. So to back up a little bit, Hahn and Meitner had a very close working relationship and Hahn had actually been a big defender of Meitner in some ways.
Uh, German science then was a little chauvinistic. People didn’t want a woman working in the same building as men, and Hahn actually had a shed put up on the side of the building so that he and Meitner could keep working together. Uh, he was sort of getting around this ban on the women being in the building by putting a shed on the side too, because he valued her, uh, skills and her advice that much. So in some ways he seemed to defend her a lot.
Unfortunately, uh, to his shame, he did not, he was at a consistent in that. Um, later on in 1945, Hahn ended up winning a belated Nobel prize. Was actually the 44 prize, I think, but awarded in 45. But Hahn ended up winning a prize, a Nobel prize for his discovery of fission. And sort of to his shame, he kind of took credit to himself and for himself because Meitner was Jewish. And she had been run out of Nazi Germany for being Jewish.
And no one quite knows why he did that and why he was so selfish. Was it just because he valued the prize so much? Was he still scared that about these lingering anti-Semitism? It’s unclear what happened, but it really does not reflect well on Hahn that in the hour she most needed him, he sort of abandoned her.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. A- and just to go back a little bit, like they did, in fact, like when they were working together before German, Nazi Germany, they also had, they kind of rediscovered element 91 and protac, uh. I’m gonna say this wrong. Protactinium, protactinium. Protactinium. Uh, so it… [laughs].
Sam Kean: Pro- protactinium I think is how you pronounce it. Yeah. Those obscure elements they are really hard to pronounce. I mean, they’re just, they’re mouthfuls.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Uh, well it turns out that Meitner helped him, like they were working together and like Meitner did a lot of like the, the work for the rediscovery of that element. And she gave him credit anyway ’cause it was just like, what you do. That, that’s how she did that.
Sam Kean: You’re right. I had forgotten that, that part of the story, but you’re right. They did work together. Um, Hahn was a very, very good chemist, but you’re right. Meitner did a lot of the work, but they were partners. So they, uh, they, they shared credit in that case. You’re right. Yeah. So it just makes it even worse that he turned around and, uh, did not extend the same courtesy to her.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. But, uh, it ended up that maybe Meitner got the last laugh, laugh.
Sam Kean: Yeah. In the sense that, uh, Hahn was considered a very important scientist and some scientists at Berkeley actually did try to name an element after him at one point, and it was later shot down for various reasons that I explained in the book. So Hahn is not on the periodic table today. Later scientists though did name an element after Lise Meitner, meitnerium. So she is ensconced and honored on the periodic table.
And I make the argument in the book that, uh, you know, Meitner did not get to see that honor during her lifetime. So in some sense, it’s called comfort. But if you look at Nobel prize winners, uh, it’s very prestigious obviously, but there’s a lot more Nobel prize winners than there are people on the periodic table. And really the periodic table is some of the most precious real estate in all of science. So to be honored on there is a much more exclusive club than to just have a Nobel prize. So you’re right. In some ways minor did get the last laugh by having that element named after her, whereas Otto Hahn got shut out.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Let’s shift gears towards, uh, pathological science. Uh, you describe it in a, in a very, uh, peculiar way. It’s like a pedological scientist, they kind of take advantage of, of the intuitive scientific caution. Like basically it’s believers you say, “Use the ambiguity about the evidence as the evidence.” Uh, can you tell us a little bit about what is pathological science?
Sam Kean: It’s basically the idea. You’re looking at some sort of fringe topic or fringe idea, and you use the idea that when you’re on a, doing a cutting edge research project, the evidence isn’t always clear. There’s ambiguity in it. There’s ambiguousness kind of built into it. And they use that ambiguity as an argument in their favor in that, oh, you have to have the right lab recipe or, you know, you need to do it the exact way I did it.
And there’s just a lot of argument about what exactly the evidence says and things like that. And they sort of rush in and take advantage of that to promote their pet theories. And these aren’t people talking about, you know, supernatural things, stuff like that, but they are talking about really fringe topics in science, like, uh, cold fusion. There’s one called N-rays. It’s a very famous example.
Uh, there was a scientist I talk about in a later book who thought that he had figured out how to control the weather. Uh, another famous example of fringe pathological science. And it’s pathological because the people in charge or the people running the experiments are usually very good scientists. It’s not like they’re bad scientists, but they did their work in other areas usually. They’re jumping into a new field and they convince themselves of things that don’t exist. So they sort of let their beliefs and their hopes drive the science. And if that, if that same quality of evidence had been presented by someone else, they would probably tear it apart. But because they’re true believers, they end up believing it.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Um, so one case study and, uh, probably infamous is that two men, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.
Sam Kean: Fleischmann, I think. Yeah. Like the yeast.
Rigoberto Hernandez: So they, uh, are North American, they’re in Utah and they claim to have discovered cold fusion. Now let’s talk to people what is cold fusion.
Sam Kean: So there’s two types of atomic reactions you can talk about. Fission means things splitting. Fusion means taking elements and fusing them together. And both processes release energy, release heat. The sun uses fusion to power itself. So basically it takes small elements, fuses them together into heavier elements. Exactly.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Okay. And so what did this dual claim they had done?
Sam Kean: They claimed they had discovered something called cold fusion, which is fusion at room temperature. Obviously the sun is much hotter than room temperature. If we were to get anywhere near the sun, we, we would, uh, basically disintegrate. They claimed they’d found the equivalent on a desktop essentially. And if that were the case, and I guess to add a little bit more context, scientists have been working for decades now to get fusion to work in a reactor.
We know how to power an atomic plant with fission, which is basically again, splitting. We have not figured out how to produce energy in a reliable way from fusion. It’s been decades and decades, and we think we’re getting closer and we think we’re getting closer, but it would be a big breakthrough because it would be a very clean and reliable source of power. So if they had discovered cold fusion, Fleischmann and Pons, this would have been a huge, huge breakthrough in that a lot of the world’s energy problems could have been solved at a stroke.
So that was sort of the stakes here was that if they had discovered this, it would be a huge, huge scientific and even bigger societal breakthrough. And so what… And what they basically discovered or claimed they discover was that if you took an element called palladium, uh, it’s a whitish metal. And palladium can absorb lots and lots of hydrogen gas and no one quite knows exactly what’s going on there. It’s a bit mysterious.
But what they claimed is that when it absorbed all of this hydrogen gas, it was actually fusing the hydrogen together in much the same way the sun does and releasing energy from it. And that was the disputed claim that whether that process of absorbing hydrogen was leading to fusion reactions or whether it was just some sort of chemical reaction going on… Chemical interaction, uh, between the palladium and the hydrogen.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Uh, and it turns out that they weren’t, they hadn’t discovered that ’cause when they started getting questions about it, specifically from an Italian lab, there were kind of cagey about it.
Sam Kean: They were. They did some things off the bat that upset a lot of scientists, which was instead of submitting their paper for peer review, which is what you’re supposed to do, they went to the media and they started [inaudible 00:40:54] up a lot of media coverage, trying to get people hyped about it. That is a big no-no in the scientific world. And it often gets people sort of upset because, [laughs], because it looks like you’re trying to circumvent peer review and trying to sort of get around the usual checks and balances that makes science work.
So they were already starting off on the wrong foot. And then scientists around the world started doing calculations. And they said things like, “Okay, if you really had cold fusion there, it would have released all of these other radioactive particles and you would be dead based on the amount of radiation that you’d absorbed. Considering that you’re not dead right now, we can therefore conclude that cold fusion as described in your paper did not actually happen.” So it was a pretty robust sound case that they didn’t, [laughs]. Pretty robust sound case that they did not actually discover cold fusion despite their big impressive claims.
Rigoberto Hernandez: And, and then just to kind of… But they basically jumped the gun. They said, “We wanna prove cold fusion and we don’t even have the science for it, we don’t even know if it’s possible, but we’re going to say we did.”
Sam Kean: Yeah. We don’t know if it’s, we don’t know if it’s possible. There were questions about the reliability of their experiments, uh, whether they were actually recording everything right. So they should have done a much more careful job and they definitely should not have gone to the press before trying to sort of fill in the holes in their experiment. And as I explained in the book, there is something kind of unusual going on there. This is an unusual property of palladium, and maybe there is some cool science there, maybe even something we could use to provide energy someday. Who knows? However, it’s not cold fusion.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And, and just to kind of contrast this dual, let’s contrast them with Wilhelm Röntgen, uh-
Sam Kean: Wilhelm Röntgen. Yep. Famous, uh, famous German scientist. So he was the one who discovered x-rays essentially, but the process was sort of strange in that he worked very, very hard to disprove himself. So he was sort of the opposite of pathological scientists, in that pathological scientist, as soon as they get a little evidence, they jump the gun, they go to the media, they started publicizing it.
Röntgen actually was convinced that he’d made a mistake and got sort of obsessed with figuring out what the mistake was. And it was only when he had ruled out essentially every other possible explanation that he concluded he had discovered something new. It’s sort of like the Sherlock Holmes, um, uh, dictum that if you have ruled out every other possibility, then whatever remains, however extraordinary must be the answer. And Röntgen actually locked himself in his room for weeks at a time. He wouldn’t even go out for meals, ’cause he was so obsessed with proving himself wrong.
And, but because he put himself through that very rigorous process, at the end of it he had very robust, strong evidence for x-rays. And scientists challenged on it, him on this. They said, “This can’t be this for this reason. Did you check this? Did you check this?” And he could come back with the checklist and say, “I checked that, I did this, I did this, here are my experiments, go do them yourself.” And when they did, they realized that he had discovered something amazing. And that’s why he was the first Nobel prize winner in physics.
Rigoberto Hernandez: And there’s like a really vivid scene in which he like puts his hand, like where the light, where like this [inaudible 00:45:04], where he discovered the x-ray and it’s like this rudimentary x-ray and he puts his hand and he sees his bones. And that must’ve been so chilling.
Sam Kean: Yeah. Uh, he was basically the first person to see the bones in his own hand with an x-ray, which must, I mean, yeah, as you said, that must have been chilling and just sort of, uh, just a crazy thing to think about. Uh, he actually did that to his wife too. And, uh, she was even more freaked.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Uh, I wanna talk about like some of the, uh, they’re like little stories here and there that I found really interesting. One of them was that Gandhi hates iodine.
Sam Kean: Yeah. So, I mean, that is the claim at least that Gandhi hates iodine. Um, the basic story is that in, during his nonviolent protest movements, uh, to win independence for India, one of the rallying points in, uh, for a lot of people in India was salt, because essentially making salt is an industry that poor people in India could do. You just got some sea water, let it evaporate and you collected the salt that remained and they sold it.
And the British government, which was, which colonized India was running India at the time, the British government decided to put a tax on salt and they raised the price a lot for these people. And they were basically harming these people. Uh, they were ruining their livelihood. And one thing that Gandhi did was sort of rally around the idea that these people should be able to sell salt without having to pay taxes to the British government for it.
So essentially it became this rallying cry that they wanted free salt. They didn’t want to have to pay the British for it. Uh, Gandhi of course, went on to help them win independence and things like that. So salt always has a connection to Gandhi historically, and a lot of people associated him with that idea, especially that, um, kind of liberating the salt workers. So fast forward a couple of decades and the world at that point has nailed on the fact that goiter, uh, which is a problem with a gland in your neck.
Goiter is often caused by a lack of iodine and it’s the basic nutrients, very simple to get, but you do need it in your diet or you’re going to suffer from goiter, which can cause all sorts of birth defects. It can, uh, uh, slow down mental development, things like that. So it’s very important to have at least some iodine in your diet. And most people get iodine from their salt. That’s why it’s called iodized salt.
In India. However, the people selling sea salt, their salt did not have iodine in it. And so health officials in India decided they were going to, uh, pass a law basically where you had to at least include some iodine in your salt. And unfortunately this public health measure, I guess we’re sort of seeing it again in the time of coronavirus, but this public health measure became a political issue because again, people kind of wanted the government not to be interfering with their salt and they sort of evoked the memory of Gandhi and said, “Well, Gandhi would have hated this idea of adding iodine to salt, and Gandhi would not have wanted this medical interference.”
And you know, ga… So the idea became that Gandhi would have hated iodine. And it was sad because again, it’s probably one of the most effective public health measures we’ve ever had, just a little bit of iodine can prevent a lot of birth defects and a lot of suffering, but because it became a political issue for a while in India, there was a lot of resistance to it. And sadly birth defects did spike, uh, while this debate was going on.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Uh, and another one that I found really fascinating was, so Stan Jones of, uh, he was running for senate in Montana, and he gave himself argyria. I believe it’s called. Uh, can you tell us about this really weird story about this guy who gave himself a medical condition?
Sam Kean: So Stan Jones was a libertarian from Montana, pretty fierce libertarian and in the buildup to the Y2K uh, at the, between 1999 and 2000, he got very worried that because of the Y2K bug supposedly, that the computers all over the country were just going to shut down, hospitals were, uh, you know, all the lights would turn off all the power, blah, blah, blah. He got very worried that there wouldn’t be medicine available. We wouldn’t be able to produce antibiotics, stuff like that.
He thought it was basically going to lead to a societal collapse because of the Y2K computer bug. So what he decided was to boost his immune system and started looking at, uh, so-called natural ways of doing this. And silver is actually a pretty good antibiotic in that it does kill bacteria. So what he decided was to start drinking water with silver ions in it and would just be had this tub, and he had a, a little coil of silver that he ran a current through. It would release ions into the water and he would drink that water in order to boost his immune system.
And there’s really no evidence that that’s gonna work better than anything else. So it’s probably kind of a folk idea. But, [laughs], it does have an unusual side effect in that the silver gets deposited in your skin. So it changes the color of your skin. And because Stan Jones drank so much of this silver water, his skin actually turned a shade of blue, and not like the Blue Man Group or like a Smurf blue. It was more like a zombie blue. It’s really sort of an off-boarding strange color, but he had to live with it after that. Uh, but despite that, he decided to run for US Senate in 2002 and 2006.
And I have to say he was very candid about it. He had a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing. He did not get even close to winning, but he did not back down from, uh, questions about it. He would joke about how he was practicing his Halloween costume or, uh, he would actually be sort of blunt sometimes and say, “You know what? I would do the same thing again if I thought society was going to collapse.” He really was convinced that he owes his health to the fact that he drank silver, despite the lack of medical evidence for it.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Godzilla and cadmium. Like when filmmakers in Japan had to kill off Godzilla, they made it so that the Japanese military deployed cadmium tip missiles. This is at a time when they had H bombs and other more deadly ways to kill Godzilla, but they use cadmium. Cadmium.
Sam Kean: Yep. Yeah. So basically I, I talk about the story a little bit more in the book, but there was a very sad case of a mass poisoning in Japan due to this element cadmium. And it became sort of a, a heroic tale in Japan because it was one doctor who spent decades and decades fighting a mining company for the rights of these rice workers who’d been poisoned by cadmium. Cadmium is a lot chemically like the elements zinc, and it can replace calcium as well in bones and it actually ruins your bones.
So the one story I always remember that was very sad, was one woman’s bones got so brittle that a doctor was just taking her pulse and ended up breaking her bones just from the pressure of taking her pulse. So that’s how brittle her bones were. Uh, it was ruining people’s kidneys. It was a very devastating epidemic that all traced back to being poisoned by this one element, cadmium.
So it was sort of a big deal, a big case in Japan and cadmium there became, uh, culturally this sort of, uh, uh, sort of a byword for a poison, uh, the way we might think of lead poisoning or something, they would think of cadmium poisoning because of this very famous case. So in the 1980s, when they were making the then latest Godzilla sequel, and they wanted to think of a way to try to kill Godzilla, they actually used in the movie missiles that were, that had cadmium on the tips of them, because that was to them the most dangerous poisonous thing they could think of was this element cadmium. So it has a place in Godzilla [inaudible 00:54:16] this element.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Uh, and one more. Uh, György Hevesy , uh, fascinating Hungarian scientists who work in Manchester. Uh, what did he do to his cafeteria lady?
Sam Kean: It was his landlady actually. Uh, what, yeah… what he did was… So to back up. Hevesy was very interested in radioactivity and wanted to sort of learn the mysteries of radioactivity. Uh, but he was having some trouble with his landlady and that she claimed, and according to what he was paying her, uh, for room and board, he should have be got… He, he should have be gone. He should have gotten fresh meat every single day.
Whereas he realized his landlady was actually sort of recycling the meat in that she was taking one day’s, you know, beef or whatever. And the next day they might have, you know, ground beef or something. So he noticed that there were patterns in the meals served there, that the same meat seem to be coming up over and over and over. But when he asked her about it, uh, she denied that she was recycling this meat day after day after day. She claims she was getting fresh meat.
So one day Hevesy decided to put this to the test in that he came home with a small vial of radioactive led. Uh, it was in powder form and when the landlady’s back was turned, he actually sprinkled some of that powdered lead on to his meat and gave it back to the landlady. Next night he came home for dinner, asked her if they were getting fresh meat that night, and she said, “Oh yes, very fresh. Totally fresh meat today.” And he said, “Really?”
And he reached down under the table and he pulled out a new fangled radiation detector from his lab buddy, a guy named Hans Geiger. And so we had a Geiger counter and started waving it over the meat to see if it was the same meat as before. And it started clicking and just click, click, click, click, click and just went off the charts. He had essentially caught her red handed recycling meat with radioactivity.
Rigoberto Hernandez: And, and like what’s so crazy was that that method is not that different from the way that, uh, tumors are recognized using, uh, tracers.
Sam Kean: Yeah. It ended up being… So Hevesy went on to essentially figure out that if you inject a small amount of a radioactive element into somebody, you can actually see inside their veins and organs. And we talked before about Röntgen and x-rays and being able to see bones, and that was a big breakthrough. But that really didn’t help you when it came time to see things like the heart or the liver or the stomach, because those are soft tissues that don’t absorb x-rays very well.
Hevesy figured out that if you were to, if you put a small bits of radioactive elements inside people, you can actually trace where they’re going based on the path of the radioactivity. So he figured out, he sort of used this idea with the landlady and transformed that into one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century.
Rigoberto Hernandez: I have so many of these, uh, like we didn’t even get to talk about Moseley, we didn’t even get to talk about Rutherford. We didn’t even talk about Marie Curie. Uh, uh, I- I guess all of that is to say is like, the book is full of these anecdotes about the people, some people you know and some people you don’t know.
Sam Kean: Yeah. I didn’t, really didn’t wanna get at the personalities of the people. I think you’ll see a different side of people that you probably thought you knew well like Einstein and Marie Curie, and you’re gonna find some other stories about scientists you’ve never heard of, but that were really colorful and that deserved to be better known.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Um, and can you tell us, uh, do you wanna plug in something, tell us about, uh, if they can find some of these stories in your podcasts or where can they find it?
Sam Kean: Yeah. So the, we talked about my book Disappearing Spoon today, uh, but I’ve written five books over all. The latest one was called The Bastard Brigade. Uh, other ones are The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, The Violinist’s Thumb, and Caesar’s Last Breath. Uh, if people are interested, they can find them online or at their local bookstore. And they can also visit my website, which is samkeen.com, just S-A-M K-E-A-N.
And in addition, as you said, I do have a podcast now that I started within the past year. And essentially it just takes a lot of these cool, interesting stories and, uh, just kind of spins them off into their own little world. So it’s been fun to do. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.
Yeah, you can, you, you do, you really do come to it sort of like a text that you can read now instead of just, you know, that thing that was hanging up in your, uh, on the wall in your high school chemistry class. It becomes a bit of a, uh, something that’s alive that you can understand better.
Rigoberto Hernandez: That’s great. Thank you so much for doing this. It’s, it’s been really fun.
Sam Kean: Well, thanks for having me.
Alexis Pedrick: Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine. You can find our videos, stories, and every single podcast at distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
Lisa Berry Drago: You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, our library and research center.
Alexis Pedrick: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow. For distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening.