A periodic piece

  • Article by: KATE QUEALY-GAINER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2010 - 1:58 PM

The history of the periodic table, mostly jargon-free and packed with anecdotes.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

Scientists and chemistry teachers may applaud its ingenuity, but to most people, the periodic table is a jumbled mass of cryptic initials, unpronounceable names, and mysterious numbers indicating something called atomic weight (or is it atomic mass?). Perhaps, however, if Sam Kean were in charge of designing the curriculum for chem class, we'd all be a little bit more interested in the often thrilling and sometimes scandalous interactions of protons and electrons.

Kean, a physics major turned scientific storyteller, argues that far from being a confounding configuration of rows and columns, the periodic table is actually "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." Skillfully balancing biographical sketches of well- and lesser-known scientists with hard science, he succeeds in making his case as he traces the history and physics of nearly all of the table's 118 elements.

Beginning with the structure's most royal subjects, the noble gases, Kean lays out the table as a sort of geographic map, assigning various elements either diplomatic duties (those atoms that freely share their electrons) or warmongering roles (those that will fight, manipulate and steal electrons), and then carefully explains how each role affects the element's reactivity. Fortunately, these often dry explanations are rather fascinatingly framed by real-world examples of the implications of these properties: thallium's subatomic structure, for example, allows it to infiltrate animal cells and destroy essential amino acids, earning it the deadly but appropriate moniker, "the poisoner's poison."

More interesting than the actual science behind the table (forgive me, chemists and physicists) is its history. Who would have guessed that the periodic table contains as much backstabbing and infighting as the latest episode of "America's Next Top Model"? Dmitri Mendeleev, the table's lauded founding father, was a moody and often unpredictable procrastinator who clashed with his mentors, destroyed the reputation of a fellow colleague, and had his fair share of personal scandals. Fritz Haber, recipient of the 1919 Nobel Prize for his studies in nitrogen, was later charged as a war criminal for his involvement with Germany's chemical warfare during World War I.

Admittedly, the author does assume a general knowledge of chemistry basics on behalf of his reader -- i.e., atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons -- but for the most part, scientific jargon is kept to a minimum. The last few chapters get a bit heady with the introduction of synthesized elements, but Kean's casual tone and often sympathetic nods to the reader make what would otherwise seem like a formidable amount of information slightly more digestible. Whether a scientist, historian or gossip queen, there is something for almost every kind of reader here.

Kate Quealy-Gainer is a freelance writer in Champaign, Ill.


    By: Sam Kean. Publisher: Little, Brown, 400 pages, $24.99.

    Review: More than just a quaint configuration of neat rows and columns, the periodic table has a past steeped in the best of humankind's ideas and the worst of its ambitions. Kean breaks down the history and the science of the table in this thoughtful, engrossing read.

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