February 10, 2014

Happy Monday. Clear and -33 here.

I read a good book on the periodic table called “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements,” by science writer Sam Kean. It’s a very readable history of the periodic table of elements that focuses on the history and personalities of the scientists who recognized that the elements can be arranged in a logical order based on their atomic composition and their resulting properties. This was before more than about a quarter of the elements had been identified, so the empty spaces on the grid goaded scientists to try to figure out what they were.

It turns out that, as Kean puts it, 90 percent of the material in the universe is hydrogen and 10 percent is helium, and the rest, including the planets and asteroids, is “a cosmic rounding error.” The stories of the discovery and naming of elements are endlessly fascinating, and the uses to which the elements have been put are surprising but familiar. Who knew that the tip of a Parker fountain pen was made of ruthinium? Or that of the 118 elements allegedly discovered to date (there is controversy about a few of them), only 92 naturally occur on earth.

This book is aimed at readers with little understanding of chemistry and physics and is about a clear an entertaining an explanation of the elements are you are likely to find. Oh, and the spoon that dissolves in a cup of tea is made of gallium. It’s an old chemists’ practical joke. I think it would be unwise to drink the tea afterward, however. Rated 4.5 stars average by 425 reviewers.

Disappearing Spoon

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