February 22, 2011

The Elements ♫

Tom Lehrer wrote the song in the title, which demonstrates that the names scan well. It is, though, a tad superficial. Dr. Johnson sternly put his finger on the problem: "The truth is that the knowledge of external nature and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or frequent business of the human mind... we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance". A devastating put-down.

Most people wouldn’t describe the periodic table of elements as gripping. But Sam Kean makes it just that in his book, The Disappearing Spoon.

The disappearing spoon of Kean's title? It's a party trick: gallium is a malleable metal, easily formed into a spoon. You offer a cup of tea with a gallium spoon and the spoon dissolves, gallium having a melting point of just under 30º C.

The periodic table is, finally, an anthropological marvel, a human artifact that reflects all of the wonderful, 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. It deserves study on each of these levels, starting with the most elementary, and moving gradually upward in complexity. Beyond just being entertaining the tales of the periodic table, provide a way of understanding it that never appears in textbooks or lab manuals.

We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, love, and even some science.

The ghost at this chemical feast is Primo Levi's, The Periodic Table. Kean writes as a curious and benign enthusiast; Levi wrote as a professional chemist whose life was probably saved by his skill. Levi's book is an autobiography in which certain chemical elements were bound up with cruxes in his life. Working in the lab at Auschwitz, he found a store of cerium, which he whittled down to make cigarette lighter flints: life-saving currency in the camp's black market.

With the earth crisis upon us and the stain of carbon's insidious effect on climate ever growing, we can be sure that understanding chemistry is going to be just as vital for our collective future as it was for Levi's personal survival. Read both these books because time has come when a working knowledge of the elements should become "the great and frequent business of the human mind".



cal tech gaggle of fans said...

From the Big Bang to the end of time, it’s all in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON.
Thank you for this post Ms. Edna, you wonderful nerdling.

just a fan said...

Ahhh, the imagination. What a wonderful thing
I like the title of this book and i enjoyed your post.
I plan to purchase this book. It looks like a great read.
Thanks again.

Alistair said...

All right, time for a confession: I don’t really care about chemistry. I liked it well enough in high school but it’s not something that I’m particularly apt to think about on a rainy Sunday afternoon. So why will I read this particular book? Honestly, I liked the description, and your post and I figure that my abysmal knowledge of the Periodic Table of Elements could use a makeover. Plus, I’m a huge history nerd.

Charles said...

Brain/mind candy or chicken soup for the nerd's soul.
Does that make me a dualist?
This book does for the periodic table what I am always trying to do for math…
Link the science to the historical events, the people, and the economics that push scientific discoveries.
The detection of elements and their relevance in our lives is far from dead: the most recently discovered, europium is a modern anticounterfeiting tool. Kean's enthusiasm and the thrill of knowledge and invention the book imparts can infected even this most right-brained reader.
Thanks for the post.

Anja said...

Posts like these have reminded me that science and its philosophy are really about finding ways to improve the world and understanding it better.
Moreover, I cannot think of a better way than by reminding myself that helping with that search is the reason, I continue to endure the trials and travails of graduate school.
So thanks, Ms. Edna, for an inspiring read.

Anonymous said...

I will buy this book for my husband. He will LOVE it… he’s such a science nerd.
Thanks for the post, even I enjoyed it, and I hate chemistry.

frenchtoast said...

This book definitely belongs in high school chemistry labs. After all everybody—even a seemingly disinterested high school student—loves a good yarn. A word of caution to the highschoolers though: Just don’t follow the lead of Gyorgy Hevesy when trying to figure out if your school cafeteria is recycling its meat through it’s “manager’s specials.”
After all, radioactive lead in food is quite the turnoff.