Several years ago I read Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s , a book of popular science whose title came from a theory about Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia during the winter. The theory goes, as Le Couteur and Burreson reported, that the buttons of Napoleon’s soldiers, which were made of tin, turned to powder in the extreme cold, thus exposing their tender torsos to the wind. Though it seems implied, the authors don’t come down strong on either side of the historical reality of this1. Though the confluence is in doubt—indeed, it seems unlikely—the individual components of the tale are true: there were a lot of dead Frenchmen that winter, and tin—a perfectly solid metal under normal conditions—does turn into powder in extreme cold.
In The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean revisits this tale, but as a side note to yet another tin tale, namely Robert Scott’s fatal 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Many of his caches of food and fuel, which he left on the initial trip, had leaked in the interim, wasting the kerosene and spoiling the potables onto which it spilled. It’s speculated that the fuel cans, soldered with tin, might have succumbed to what is known as “tin pest”. This, too, is largely speculative; the tin pest problem is apparently too tricky to resolve, even for relatively recent history.
But such is the sort of story that Kean likes to reproduce in his new book, a rather jovial romp that uses two main storytelling threads. The first is a history of the periodic table itself, beginning with Mendeleev and his contemporaries and leading all the way to Glenn Seaborg’s reorganization in the mid-20th century. This narrative intertwines with the discovery of elements which fill in or append to the known list; though Kean skips the elements that were known early on—e.g., nitrogen or oxygen—he details the discovery of the more difficult substances such as Aluminium2, and certainly all of the trans-uranic elements, whose discoveries paralleled our knowledge of atomic science (and, unfortunately, nuclear weapons).
The second narrative thread is that of anecdotes, wherein Kean relates the funny stories, tricks, and other errata that accompany some of the elements. The name of the book, in fact, derives from a popular chemist prank: spoons made of gallium (which melts at just above room temperature) are served with tea or coffee, and dissolve when uses to stir3. Often, these quirky stories are simply part and parcel of the discovery of the element itself; a mine near Ytterby, Sweden, produced no fewer than four eponymous elements: Yttrium, Ytterbium, Terbium, and Erbium; these latter three are all Lanthanides, one of two rows stuck mysteriously at the bottom of the Periodic Table, the way Alaska is shown floating nebulously off to the side of U.S. maps. The Lanthanides and Actinides disrupt the careful lines of the table because of the way electrons behave; the lanthanide series all have to do with the filling of “f-orbitals“, the science of which is beyond me, but which Kean spends no small amount of time explaining. While the f-orbitals are more complicated, the more basic and predictable tenets of electron behavior which govern the chemical properties of elements, such as their propensity to form bonds, are a little easier, and rather important in understanding why the table is arranged the way it is. In this, Kean does the job well enough; it’s difficult writing such concepts for what is essentially a lay audience4.
Later elements, of course, necessarily introduce the concept of radiation, and all of the various and grisly stories that go along with it—though Keen tends away from the morbid, eschewing most talk of The Bomb, or the death of the Curies, for instance. Curiously, the race to produce new trans-uranic elements in the lab—even if they exist only for seconds or fractions of a second as they follow a chain of radioactive decay—gets a lot of page space, as Kean brings us up to the state of the art (as of about 2009), which has as much to do with politics now as it did during, say, Germany’s 20th-century dustups or America’s long staring contest with the Soviet Union.
By and large, The Disappearing Spoon is a wonderful little book that is manages to be an entertaining history of the period table and its elements, and a relatively easy [re]introduction to the basic principles of chemistry that make it all happen. I’m a little disappointed that Kean’s history skips over so many primordial elements with their own storied histories and instead focuses a bit too much on the historically-recent quest for synthetic elements, but I suppose that the former has been done before and the latter has not, so perhaps it’s to our benefit that the book mixes historicity with recency.
- See Cecil Adam’s report[↩]
- Shown here in the Non-US spelling, which Kean uses. At one point, Aluminium was one of the most rare and expensive metals in earth; the Washington Monument has a 6-pound pyramid of it at its peak, as a show of wealth and power.[↩]
- Oh, those chemists! No wonder they don’t get invited to parties[↩]
- I remember parts of it from high school chemistry, so it was a nice refresher for me.[↩]