The Disappearing Spoon
© 2010 Sam Kean
A massive poster of the periodic table is as elemental to the image of a science classroom as the rows of graduated cylinders and microscopes, but there is considerably more to that table than other reference materials — like a table of statistics about planet volumes, orbital velocities, and composition, for instance. The periodic table’s peculiar shape, its neat columns and rows, are not only orderly in themselves but speak to cosmic order; elements which are very near each other in terms of their number of protons, neutrons, and electrons are worlds away from one another in their physical characteristics – and the reverse. The Disappearing Spoon is a human history of the periodic table, built on the author’s suspicion that every element had a story worth telling associated with. Perhaps it was discovered on accident; perhaps it consumed generations, or lead to the collapse of armies and the failure of expeditions to the South Pole. Many of the stories here address the elements’ discoveries, including rivalries to isolate them first – rivalries between men and nations alike. The stories cover a lot of ground between them, and include as much history and literary references as they do chemistry. All in all, it’s great fun…but despite the title, there’s no Matrix jokes. Turns out the disappearing spoon is made of gallium — just pop a gallium spoon into a cup of tea, and it melts away.