The Disappearing Spoon

A love letter to chemistry and the periodic table.

The Disappearing Spoon

When most people think of the periodic table, they recall the oversize chart hanging on the wall of their high school chemistry class—intimidating and perplexing to all but the most gifted eleventh graders. In “The Disappearing Spoon” (Little Brown), veteran science writer Sam Kean makes the periodic table interesting and accessible to the science-challenged reader, tying elements like cadmium, radium, and tellurium to true tales of passion, adventure, and betrayal. And the stories aren’t limited to the likes of Isaac Newton and Marie Curie, Kean also relates the exploits of obscure characters like David Hahn, a teenager who obsessively collected radioactive elements and attempted to construct a model nuclear breeder reactor in the potting shed behind his mother’s house. 

In the following Q&A interview, Kean discusses a handful of his favorite stories from “The Disappearing Spoon,” wrapping up by explaining the title of the book and the prank it refers to.

Who developed the periodic table?

Many popular accounts of history get it wrong, as at least five different scientists created periodic tables before Dmitri Mendeleev, the commonly acknowledged father of the periodic table. For instance, English chemist John Newlands constructed a table where the properties of the elements repeated every seven units, and he whimsically compared the seven columns to the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti of the musical scale. Even Mendeleev published his first table sideways, rotated ninety degrees from the tables of today. But he was a brilliant scientist, and he predicted the existence of elements that had not been discovered. Overall, Mendeleev’s work with the table is comparable to Darwin’s with evolution. Neither man did all the work, but they did the most, and they did it more elegantly than others.

How did the elements in the periodic table get their names?

In the days when all respectable gentlemen knew Greek and Latin, scientists used to name elements after mythological creatures—like thorium, named after Thor, or promethium, after Prometheus. Or they used simple descriptions of the element in Greek or Latin. For various reasons, the elements beryllium, chlorine, praseodymium, and thallium are all named after words for green.

The most enduring fashion for naming elements, predating even the table itself, is patriotism. That’s why we have names like francium, americium, californium, germanium, etc. There was even an illinium, an alabamine, and a virginium (after Illinois, Alabama, and Virginia), but claims for those elements fell apart.

The most popular recent trend is naming elements after great scientists. Eleven of the last fourteen elements are named after scientists, starting with einsteinium and concluding with copernicium, element 112, which was added to the periodic table in June 2009.

Tell me about some of your favorite characters in the book.

One is John Bardeen, who co-invented the transistor, the lynchpin of modern electronics. Later he moved to another lab and discovered the secrets of superconductivity. But what really made Bardeen lovable was his clumsiness. When he learned that he’d he won the Nobel Prize, he spilled his breakfast all over the floor. And right before accepting the prize in Stockholm, he accidentally dyed part of his tuxedo green in the wash.

As for better-known scientists, I love the story of Linus Pauling, who was probably the greatest chemist of the twentieth century. He should have discovered the double helix structure of DNA before [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick. But Pauling made an elementary mistake with the element phosphorus, a component of DNA. His mistake caused him to publish a paper arguing that DNA was a triple helix—a mistake he never lived down, and one that probably cost him a shot at scientific immortality.

Speaking of death, what’s the deadliest element on the periodic table?

Nearly any element can be dangerous—even common nitrogen in the air can foil the body’s natural defenses and kill you within seconds under certain circumstances. But some elements are deadlier than others. There’s an especially heinous collection in the southeast quadrant of the table, a section I call poisoner’s corridor. There you’ll find the likes of mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, polonium, and radon.

Generally speaking, though, one element stands out—thallium, element eighty-one. Its sometimes called the poisoner’s poison. The notorious British serial killer Graham Frederick Young preferred thallium, for instance. And the CIA reportedly once hatched a plot to kill Fidel Castro with thallium, partly because it would make his trademark beard fall out before he died, a humiliating prospect. Cases still pop up today; two children in Iraq recently died from a birthday cake laced with thallium.

Do any elements seem to be in the wrong place on the table?

I have to admit that bismuth, element eighty-two, sits right in the middle of poisoners corridor—and its harmless. In fact, its the bis in Pepto-Bismol. So bismuth is probably the most misplaced element on the table. And while that might chagrin scientists who’d like to find mathematical consistency in the table, I don’t see it that way. It’s further proof that the table is filled with rich, unpredictable stories if you know where to look.

Have there been any big stories in the news recently regarding one or more of the elements?

Absolutely. McDonald’s recently recalled 13 million Shrek glasses because the paint on the outside had too much cadmium in it. And the U.S. government recently announced the discovery of up to $1 trillion in iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium in Afghanistan. There’s great hope that this wealth can reshape Afghan society for the better, but history suggests otherwise.

Last but not least, what is a disappearing spoon?

The element gallium, number thirty-one, is a solid at room temperature but it melts at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit. A classic prank is to make a spoon out of gallium and use it when serving tea. Gallium sits below aluminum on the periodic table, so it looks almost exactly like aluminum, so much so that most guests don’t know the difference. That is, until they put the gallium spoon in the tea, and look on with astonishment as their Earl Grey eats it.