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Book Review

Feasting off the periodic table with tales of wonder and shock

By Caroline Leavitt
July 10, 2010

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Quick, think of an invention and you probably have the periodic table, that amazing chart of elements you stared at in science class, to thank for it. The Parker 51 pen has a ruthenium tip that doesn’t crumple like gold and looks just as pretty. Your cellphone keeps you in contact because of tantalum, and you can probably thank the fluoride in water for your strong teeth. But the periodic table, in this irresistible new book, also doesn’t just explain and explore the elements, it reveals history, passions, madness, and the all-out drama of our lives.

Sam Kean, winner of the National Association of Science Writers’ runner-up award for best writer under the age of 30, is brimming with puckish wit, and his love for the elements is downright infectious. He jumps right in to tell you how the periodic table was invented independently by six different people, but claimed in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev, who quickly wrote up the table to meet a textbook publisher’s deadline, brazenly naming elements he had never seen. Kean explains why the elements appear as they do (it has to do with recurring chemical properties), and then he zooms off on a wild anecdotal ride sure to dazzle any reader.

Kean finds amazing stories attached to every element of the table.

Jokester gallium, which looks like aluminum, can be shaped into a spoon, which promptly disappears when stirred into hot tea. Silver was made into a supplement that was supposed to boost the immune system, but it ended up turning Stan Jones, a senatorial candidate from Montana, completely blue in 2002. Truly, according to Kean, each exploration of an element has somehow changed the way we live and die.

Warfare could not happen without periodic table chemistry. When it was discovered that steel could be strengthened when spiked with the element molybdenum, it was drafted into action in World War I. And there’s a symbolic reason the missiles that sent Godzilla to his reptilian doom were tipped with cadmium. So many Japanese were poisoned working in the cadmium mines, that they simply could not have imagined anything more deadly.

Because of the periodic table, even the term mad scientist takes on new meaning. Wilhelm Röntgen made a radical discovery with barium coated plates. He could see through his skin to the bones of his own hand and assumed he had gone crazy. What he had truly seen was his discovery of the X-ray. The element lithium calmed the poet Robert Lowell’s bipolar surges, but many felt it had an unfortunate side effect, managing his madness but flattening his genius.

Kean’s writing sparks like small shocks. He says thallium, the deadliest element, “roams like a molecular Mongol horde,’’ tugging apart amino acids. Mercury “is one of the more cultish elements: Its atoms want to keep company with other mercury atoms.’’ He gives science a whiz-bang verve so that every page becomes one you cannot wait to turn just to see what he’s going to reveal next, from the poisoner’s corridor of elements (hat makers who used mercury lost both their hair and their wits) to the historical importance of the periodic table itself (Stalin hated scientists, but kept physicists alive because he knew he would need their expertise to build bigger and better weapons).

Kean’s book is so rambunctious and so much fun, you’ll find yourself wanting to grab someone just to share the tidbits. But the alchemy of this book is the way Kean makes you see and experience and appreciate the world differently, with a real sense of wonder and a joy of discovery, that is downright elemental.

Caroline Leavitt’s novel “Pictures of You’’ will be published by Algonquin in January. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON:

And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements

By Sam Kean

Little, Brown, 400 pp., $24.99