An Elementary Guide to History

August 19, 2010

Vacationers grab a cheesy thriller, or the “autobiography” of a reality-TV star destined for oblivion, on their way to the beach.

They do not bring books like The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Too bad. According to Sam Kean, a science writer and former undergrad in honors physics, “there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table.”

Released in July, The Disappearing Spoon argues that it’s time to stop thinking of the periodic table as something to memorize in chemistry class. Kean believes that the chart is also “an anthropological marvel, a human artifact that reflects all of the wonderful and artful and ugly aspects of human beings and how we interact with the physical world -- the history of our species written in a compact and elegant script.”

The universe, Kean stipulates, is mostly nothing. Or more accurately, nearly nothing. Hydrogen (atomic number 1) and helium (atomic number 2), elements so light they flee the atmosphere, comprise over 99 percent of creation. The stuff we think of as elements -- e.g., calcium, iron, titanium, gold, uranium -- fills out the tiny remainder.

But learning the nature and the usefulness of that stuff made modernity. Take molybdenum (atomic number 42), a metal the munitions manufacturer Krupp mixed with steel to improve the “Big Bertha” cannons Germany used in World War I. “Moly steel” guns fixed the problem of “scorched and warped” barrels. That was good news for the Kaiser: “As late as 1918, Germany used moly steel guns to shell Paris from the astonishing distance of seventy-five miles.”

A misunderstanding of elements spawned the legend of Midas, which traces its origin to Phrygia (now Turkey) in 700 B.C.E. At the time, the “high-tech field of the day” was bronze, an amalgam of tin (atomic number 50) and copper (atomic number 29). But due to the prevalence of a third element in his kingdom, Midas’s foundries were making not bronze, but a shinier substance: brass. The Midas touch, Kean explains, “was possibly nothing more than an accidental touch of zinc [atomic number 30] in the soil of his corner of Asia Minor.”

As difficult as it is to accept in the age of Reynolds Wrap, aluminum (atomic number 13) was once regarded as a precious metal. While ubiquitous in the planet’s crust, Kean notes that it “never appears in pure, mother lode-al form. It’s always bonded to something, usually oxygen.” In 1886, Charles Hall, a co-founder of the company that became Alcoa, figured out a way to extract pure aluminum using electricity. “Years before Hall was born, one man’s breakthrough had dropped [aluminum] from $550 per pound to $18 per pound in seven years. Fifty years later, not even adjusting for inflation, Hall’s company drove down the price to 25 cents per pound.”

“An element toxic in one circumstance can become a lifesaving drug in another,” Kean warns. Two tragic tales from America’s space bureaucracy demonstrate elements’ dual nature. Too little nitrogen (atomic number 7) killed “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chafee, and Ed White when the pure-oxygen cabin of Apollo 1 exploded into a fireball in 1967. Fourteen years later, too much nitrogen killed two NASA ground workers. John Bjornstad and Forrest Cole died after entering a nitrogen-filled engine compartment during a preflight test of the orbiter Columbia.

Kean has a lively, conversational style, but he stumbles at times, tangenting into hard-core science that will have many readers skipping ahead to the next anecdote. And several of his claims are simply wrong. (The assertion that recent bloodshed in the Congo was “the biggest waste of life since World War II” is preposterous. The butchery in Indochina between the 1950s and 1970s killed more, as did Mao’s mass-murdering regime.) But Kean makes a convincing case that the periodic table “is … both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook.” Better still, the story’s far from over.

As for the eponymous disappearing spoon, Kean explains that it’s a practical joke “among the chemistry cognoscenti.” Mold spoons out of gallium (atomic number 31, melting point 84°F), and “watch as your guests recoil when their Earl Grey ‘eats’ their utensils.”

Gazing into the heavens, astronomer Johannes Kepler is said to have exclaimed, “O God, I am thinking Thy thoughts after Thee!” It’s safe to assume that many of the tinkerers, scientists, and industrialists who identified the properties and applications of the elements agreed.

D. Dowd Muska ( is a writer, commentator and lecturer. He lives in Connecticut.

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