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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

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 This book is a fun romp through the history and contents of the periodic table.

In the beginning, the cute and amusing anecdotes flew as fast as an electron spins in its orbit around a nucleus. The author regales us with tales of the infant scientists stumbling their way through the discovery of the organize-ability of the elementsinto a periodic table, to the adolescent arrogance of the Manhattan Project, through the middle aged experience and skill of defining time that is not based on the inexact and inconsistent orbit of the Earth on its own axis. These stories are rife with murder, pride, love, and brilliance.

There is the story of the Jewish scientists who, during WWI, invented mustard gas, on purpose, based on...um...one of the elements. He was being patriotic. The Germans used this on the French and English soldiers who were literally burned alive - slowly. He fled the country just before WWII to England - compatriots of those soldiers his invention so badly burned, to escape the Nazis. His relatives were exterminated by a form of this gas. He invented the tool that would kill his own family.

There is the story of the patriotism that led an exiled Polish scientist (a woman - yay!) to honor her country by naming the element she discovered with the unfortunate name of polonium. (Polonius, anyone?)

There is the story of the Boy Scout kid who, while trying to earn a badge, almost succeeded in building a nuclear reactor in his backyard.

But as we get closer and closer to the present, as you would expect, the more complicated and obscure the stories become. For example, in trying to understand why the nuclei of certain "heavy" elements stay intact for a nano-second (or some measure of time) longer than an element that is one unit "lighter" than it, the author takes an entire chapter to explain how some nuclei have a different gravity or magnetic force than others. How? I have no fucking clue. No idea. None. I read it and still don't know.

Here's another example. This:
image
apparently proves that if you know a particle's postion, then you don't know it's speed and vice versa. This apparently is what cracked the nut to inveting laser eye surgery. How? Dunno. What does it mean? Dunno.

I eventually did drop the remaining handful of chapters as the stories became harder to understand, but all in all, the bulk of the book is about human natue....albeit the kind of humans that wear taped, horn-rimmed glasses and say "Did I do that?" in a nasally voice.

Fun book. I recommend this for wannabe nerds who never wanted to take a science class but still look up at the skies and wonder if there is life out there. Apparently the periodic table is going to help us answer that question....eventually.