‘The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales from the periodic table,’ Sam Kean
More non-fiction fun and games with this highly readable book on the history of the periodic table, the elements, science, and stuff! Science never having been my strong point, I need well-written, interesting stories to get me interested in chemistry, physics and biology, and this book sure delivered!
“In 1911 a Dutch-German scientist was cooling mercury with liquid -452ºF when the system lost all electrical resistance and became an ideal conductor. This would be sort of like cooling an iPod down to hundreds of degrees below zero and finding that the battery remained fully charged no matter how long or loud you played music, until infinity…”
Now that’s the kind of analogy I can understand!
Ever wondered where the periodic table actually came from? The stories of the personalities behind the scientific discoveries are often as interesting as the science itself:
“Like his Russian contemporary Dostoevsky – who wrote his entire novel The Gambler in three weeks to pay off desperate gambling debts – [Dmitri] Mendelev threw together his first table to meet a textbook publisher’s deadline…”
I had first learned about Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber, in Michael Pollan’s highly influential ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma.’ Haber had revolutionised farming by discovering how to produce fertiliser, and Wikipedia credits his discoveries as being directly responsible for “the food production for half the world’s current population.” And yet only here do I learn:
“Humiliated at the huge reparations Germany had to pay the Allies, Haber spent six futile years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans, so that he could pay the reparations himself…”
Not all of the trivia and knowledge is science based: it is a wonderfully scattered trove of information, for example:
“Until well past 1900 Russia used a misaligned calendar that Julius Caesar’s astrologers had invented, leaving it weeks behind Europe and its modern Gregorian calendar. That lag explains why the ‘October Revolution’ that brought Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 actually occurred in November…”
Also, Dorothy apparently “…wore silver, not ruby, slipper” in the original novel of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
On the changes in customs and tastes, (not to mention prices) over the years:
“…the minor Emperor Napoleon III reserved a prize set of aluminium cutlery for special guests at banquets. (Less favoured guests used gold knives and forks…)”
But ultimately, it was science which I learned from this highly readable, extremely educational book – this paragraph, taken from the start of the final chapter, sums up what kind of wonders I took away with me:
“As we know, 90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error…”