Although some of the elements have been known for thousands of years, our understanding of many elements is still young. Mendeleev’s first Periodic Table contained only 63 elements, and roughly that many were discovered in the following 100 years. Just like countries, emperors, philosophers, and cities, elements have histories, too. “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean, is a detailed history of the elements on the Periodic Table. Kean does a remarkable job of telling every single element’s journey throughout the history of mankind: from the earliest times, when chemistry was intermingled with alchemy, to these days of modern chemistry.
As a curious child, Kean used to watch his mother collecting the scattered spheres of mercury of a broken thermometer. During his childhood and following years in school, Kean encountered elements and interesting facts about them, and he finally decided to write a book where he could share these funny and exciting stories.
Each chapter offers information about several elements, but Kean follows neither an alphabetical order nor the atomic numbers or “groups” with which most chemists are familiar. Instead, he arranges the chapters by grouping the elements by function. Each chapter consists of several elements with the same importance at a certain period of history, or the ones that have similar uses. For example, in “Elements as Money” he focuses on zinc, gold, tellurium, europium, and aluminum, and in “Poisoner’s Corridor” he explains the properties of cadmium, thallium, bismuth, thorium and americium.
The book sets out to tell funny and exceptional stories of the elements, and it accomplishes its goal by giving various details and facts. For example, beryllium, also known as “sweet,” is also a very poisonous element. The great scientist Enrico Fermi used to perform his uranium experiments with beryllium powder. Although he was in close contact with uranium, an extremely radioactive element, beryllium also caused significant damage to his health. Fermi suffered lung disease due to his exposure to beryllium and had to use an oxygen tank later in his life.
The history of the elements is also tied up in the history of the 20th century. When the Soviet Union started up its own nuclear research and worked to discover new elements, it caused an “element race” at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The Soviet Union and Berkeley discovered new elements almost in tandem, and one of the biggest debates in the history of chemistry occurred over the name for the element number 106. After years of struggle over the name and the credit for the discovery, finally it was named seaborgium(Sg) after Glenn Seaborg.
The properties of elements have also historically been used for playing pranks. Having a melting point of 29.8° C, gallium melts when placed in hot liquids, so scientists used to create gallium spoons and give them to visitors along with hot tea. Check it out:
[Note: We shouldn’t have to say this, but do NOT do this in your lab.]
Although Kean’s examples and stories about the elements are fascinating, it’s somewhat difficult to follow for chemists who are used to “groups” and the “periodic trend” of the table. The elements in the chapters have no “periodic” properties, so the curious chemist should keep a periodic table nearby while reading this book.
This book can definitely be considered an interesting assistant in learning about chemistry and the elements. There are so many exciting stories about the elements in this book, perfect for both the amateur chemist as well as a professional looking to make their craft more accessible, and it’s a must read book for chemists.