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Sam Kean

The disappearing spoon

The periodic table is a familiar sight to those who have sat in a science class, but the poster on the wall does little to suggest the stories which lie behind the elements it lists. In The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements Sam Kean tells us some of these stories.

Each chapter takes a number of elements and finds stories relating to them. What's the longest word in the English language? Does the name of a protein (carbon based), count with 1185 letters, or will we have to settle for a 45 letter silicon based disease? There are chapters on the role of elements in medicine, as well as on their use as poisons. There's a look at the part they have played in warfare, for example the importance of tungsten in the Second World War, and of course the development of the atom bomb. There's cold fusion, the Parker 51 pen with it's ruthenium tip and there's the time when aluminium was a precious metal, more expensive than gold. There are plenty of stories of the discovery of new elements, including some of the bitter arguments which have taken place when naming them. The last chapter looks ahead to see how far the periodic table might be extended with the creation of new elements.

The book is an entertaining read, and will introduce the reader to plenty of the elements of the periodic table. I'd tip it as a possible winner of the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews