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The Disappearing Spoon and The Elements

Fenella Saunders

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Sam Kean. Little, Brown and Company, $24.99.

THE ELEMENTS: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Theodore Gray. Photographs by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, $29.95.

Click to Enlarge ImageFew of us would ever associate the periodic table of the elements with high intrigue. But as Sam Kean details in The Disappearing Spoon, behind those lettered boxes lies a sordid past. The story of how we came to discover and understand the elements touches on topics that range from the hot centers of stars to human folly. He describes the brilliance—and shortsightedness—of Dmitri Mendeleev; the rise of the semiconductor industry; the connection of wars to the discovery of new elements; the widespread cadmium poisoning that took place in 20th-century Japan; and the practice in colonial America of putting a silver coin in a milk jug to prevent the milk from spoiling. Readers also learn that J. W. Döbereiner’s studies of strontium, which led him to group elements into columns like those later used in the first periodic tables, were encouraged by Goethe; that Wilhelm Röntgen thought he had gone insane when he first discovered x rays; and that the talented chemist Maria Goeppert-Mayer struggled for legitimacy for her entire career—but was nevertheless billed as a “mother” rather than a scientist when she won the Nobel Prize. Not all of the tales are serious. The book’s title refers to a practical joke: Chemists have been known to serve guests tea and supply them with a spoon fashioned from gallium, which looks like aluminum but melts at about 85.5 degrees Fahrenheit. When the guest stirs the hot tea, the spoon will seem to be eaten away by it.

Theodore Gray’s The Elements serves to remind us that chemical elements are not just interesting but also beautiful. This coffee-table book includes a dramatic full-page photograph of each of the first hundred elements (elements 101 through 118 are grouped together at the end); on the facing page are text and smaller photographs of things in which the substance can be found. Gray’s witty descriptions tie the book together. For instance, on the page facing a photo of some gloriously purple iodine on a plate, he explains how difficult it is to photograph this element, because its vapors contain no particles to reflect light; he also comments on iodine’s historical uses as a disinfectant.

Much of the material in The Elements, and more, can be viewed at http://periodictable.com. The book has also been made into an interactive app for the iPad (Touchpress, $13.99). For the app, the elements are rendered in three dimensions. They can be spun to be viewed from any angle, and video makes it possible to see, for example, violet vapor rising from the iodine.


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