The Disappearing Spoon


Sam Kean




Date Reviewed:

January 28, 2012

he Disappearing Spoon is a book I had never heard of, but spotted it while browsing the new paperbacks shelf at the library. Though the title sounds like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, this book is actually a nonfiction book that describes the elements of the periodic table. Kean tries to write a story about each and every element on the chart, along with explaining to us how the periodic table was created by Dmitri Mendeleyev (Kean explains that Mendeleyev's chart wasn't the first attempt to place the elements into a table according to their properties, but Mendeleyev's turned out to be the most accurate.) The disappearing spoon in the title refers to a prank that can be played by chemistry-smart tricksters - the element Gallium is a shiny metal that looks like steel, but it has a surprisingly low melting point. The pranksters fashion a spoon out of Gallium, and then serve a unsuspecting person a hot cup of tea. When the Gallium spoon is used to stir the hot tea, it melts and dissolves, leaving the victim staring at their cup of tea with consternation.

The Disappearing Spoon is full of neat tidbits about individual elements. Did you know that Uranium was named after the planet Uranus? The planet was discovered in 1780, and there was such excitement about finding a new planet, that when a new element was discovered in 1789, it was named Uranium in honor of the new planet. For the exact same reason, Neptunonium and Plutonium were also named after discovered planets. Some of these stories are fascinating - such as the knowledge that aluminum used to be more valuable than gold! Back in 19th century, aluminum ore was common, but no one could figure how to separate the metal from the ore, so pure aluminum was precious - Kean tells us that on top of the Washington Monument there stands a precious 9 lb pyramid of pure aluminum. Today that aluminum pyramid is worth less than $5. (Scrap aluminum sells for 40 cents a pound).

In this book the readers learn that as settlers headed west, they each dropped a silver dollar into their milk container. The purpose was not to hide the silver, but the silver acts as a mild anti-bacterial agent - the cells of bacteria are dissolved by in the presence of silver, though for some reason the cell walls of humans (who have much larger cells) are unaffected. Copper has the same effect, which is why copper piping is so prized for water delivery. However, this silver story also highlights what I see is the flaw of the book - because Kean is trying to cover all 112 elements, he ends up giving short attention to some interesting elements. That story about silver is pretty much the ONLY story about silver in the book, and I am sure that there are plenty more tidbits of cool silver stories that I would have liked to know. But since niobium and astatine also need their own stories in the book, I am sure the editor left a lot of neat silver stories on the cutting room floor. There are so many rare earth metals that telling their story sort of slows down the narrative. Sure, there is a bit of a story on the race to discover each new element, but ultimately those stories are not as interesting as familar elements like arsenic or chlorine.

I liked the section of the book where Kean explains that although the periodic table appears to be filled, there are still new forms of matter to be discovered. Though I didn't really understand his explanation of Einstein-Bose condensate, his brief description of combining superatoms to mimic other elements sounded interesting - scientists some how combine thirteen atoms of aluminum into a single super atom that appears to have the exact chemical properties of a single atom of bromine. They can make super-atoms of aluminum appear to act like other elements too, such as calcium; they call this state of matter "jellium". No idea yet how this would be useful, so for now it is just an intriguing bit of scientific knowledge.

Over all, this is an interesting book, there are enough neat tidbits that (if only you could remember the stories) you could be a hit at your next cocktail party. This is a book all chemistry teachers ought to read, to inject a little bit more life into their classroom lectures, explaining to their students why these elements matter.