Sam Kean’s “The Disappearing Spoon” is another book that was mentioned on Twitter so long ago I can’t remember when or who (or why!) But it seemed like a cool concept- a book about the story (and usually stories) behind each element of the periodic table. The title comes from the element gallium- the element below aluminum. While elements in the same column are usually similar, gallium is a metal that if formed into a spoon will melt if used to stir coffee or tea. Hilarity will ensue.
I’m not sure what I was excepting know this general idea about the book. In hindsight, I should have known it would be a rather fragmented series of anecdotes. I guess maybe I hoped there would be some over arching story, or maybe a couple of themes. While the book is broken up into five parts which were technically five different themes they weren’t cohesive or memorable enough to really make much sense as a book.
That said, the writing is very good. The stories are very interesting. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of science. The elements of the periodic table do involve many of science’s huge players of the past centuries, and some great stories. It just doesn’t really work as a “book” so much as a collection of short stories. Unfortunately, the writing is so good that I felt compelled to read it cover to cover instead of bits and pieces here and there. I guess that’s not the worst thing for a writer to hear!
Some of my favorite anecdotes:
Marie Curie’s maiden name was Sklosowska- Polish! (I’m 25% Polish.) She’s the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes.
My research focuses on how DNA interacts with element 72. From the book: “In perhaps the least-sweat discovery in periodic table history, Hevesy and Coster found element seventy-two on their first attempt. They named it hafnium, from Hafnia, the Latin name for Copenhagen.” (p212)
Proof that your adviser does matter: “In addition to winning the prize himself, Rutherford mentored and hand-trained eleven future prizewinners, the last in 1978, more than four decades after Rutherford died. It was perhaps the most impressive feat of progeny since Genghis Khan father hundreds of children seven centuries earlier.” (p303) Who were they?*
Another Rutherford gem: “Rutherford himself was fond of saying, ‘In science, there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting’ – words he later had to eat when he won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry…) (p304)
Rutherford’s students who won the Nobel Prize (I could only find 10, but Rutherford’s adviser was JJ Thomson who won the 1906 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the electron and for his work on the conduction of electricity in gases.)
- Fredrick Soddy – Chemistry, 1921 – “for his contributions to our knowledge of the chemistry of radioactive substances, and his investigations into the origin and nature of isotopes”.
- Niels Bohr – Physics, 1922 – “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them”
- James Chadwick – Physics, 1935 – “for the discovery of the neutron”
- Otto Hahn – Chemistry, 1944 – “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”
- Edward Appleton – Physics, 1947 – “for his investigations of the physics of the upper atmosphere especially for the discovery of the so-called Appleton layer”
- Patrick Blackett – Physics, 1948 – for his development of the Wilson cloud chamber method, and his discoveries therewith in the fields of nuclear physics and cosmic radiation”
- Cecil Powell – Physics, 1950 – “for his development of the photographic method of studying nuclear processes and his discoveries regarding mesons made with this method”
- Ernest Walton – Physics, 1951 – “for their pioneer work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles”
- John Cockcroft – Physics, 1951 – “for their pioneer work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles”
- Pyotr Kapitsa – Physics, 1978 – “for his basic inventions and discoveries in the area of low-temperature physics”
- BONUS: One of Rutherford’s student was named Charles Galton Darwin. No, not “that” Darwin. “That” Darwin was his grandfather. Could you imagine your grandfather was Charles Darwin, and your academic advisers were Rutherford and Niels Bohr!?
Nick Fahrenkopf on August 14th 2011 in Uncategorized