Elements Periodic Table History of the World in The Disappearing Spoon

Do you know: Why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters? Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? And how did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie's reputation?

The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession.
These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. The Disappearing Spoon masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery--from the Big Bang through the end of time.

The chapters are organized in an interesting way. Not in the order of chronology, or in the order of periodicity of the elements. The chapters are organized thematically. So there is a bit of both chronological & periodic order in the beginning. But then the author does a few acrobatic stunts with themes shifting to wars, physics & biology, to human traits of avarice, art & nuttiness & finally to rather esoteric stuff about states of matter, bubbles, scientific tools & what not.

You probably already need to really like Chemistry to get through the 340+ pages with additional footnotes but if you like Chemistry and ever stared longingly at the periodic table, seeing some kind of elegance you didn't fully understand, this was written for you.The first couple chapters are there to make sense out of the table as a whole. Then they are broken up by elements with similar properties. This allows Kean to explain how the vertical and horizontal elegance can work. Each chapter will give you some of the technical info but a lot of the personal info. Each chapter tells the story of who discovered what, who they may have stolen the discovery from and what oddities exist in the discovery of the elements.

Kean does a great job in mixing a litte science, a touch of history, some genuine supposition and a dash of humor. The result is a view of the periodic table, its history, and a number of stories about some of its residents. He writes in a fun, easy to read style, and doesn't include a lot of technical jargon or fifteen letter words.

He is mostly careful about what is proven knowledge versus what is informed supposition, although he occasionally gets careless with what is fact versus hearsay. Still, most of the "how this was discovered" stories are more for entertainment value, this is a perfectly acceptable standard.

While this is in no way a chemistry or physics book, to understand the beauty, logic, and difficulty in constructing the periodic table, you need to know some details about the structure of an atom. Kean strikes a nice balance. The text is technical enough to highlight what makes the periodic table so clever and useful, but yet perfectly understandable by anyone with even the slightest hint of how an atom is constructed.

He takes the reader up and down the table with stories of elemental discoveries, their differing properties and their impact on the course of history. We learn of the invention of the table, usually attributed to Dmitri Mendeleev, though the story is a little more complicated. We learn of the hunt for elements to fill in the empty spaces and some of the deadly consequences of the discovery of the radioactive elements. How the elements changed the course of history and the results of wars. In the final chapter Kean goes above and beyond the familiar table to introduce the reader to newly discovered exotic forms of matter that might require a periodic table all their own. 

Kean has a gift of tying history, myth, science and intelligent guesswork together. As an example, he relates a tale of an area of Asia Minor, where copper, zinc and tin ores exist, often mingled together. Copper and tin, mixed together make bronze, a dull, yellowy metal. But copper and zinc mixed together make brass, a very shiny golden metal, which can plausibly be mistaken for gold by ancient alchemists. And Asia Minor is noted for having some very early bronze foundries, and coincidentally, the legendary home of King Midas. Kean can't prove that some ancient process for replacing the tin in bronze with zinc, and thereby making brass, was mistaken for alchemy, but it is an interesting bit of supposition..

This book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.