Sam Kean is my favorite science writer, for a few reasons. For one thing, he is a complete mad man about research. In chapter 2 of The Disappearing Spoon, Kean records the longest word in the English language. This champion of all English verbiage turns out to be a word that describes a protein on the first virus ever discovered and measures 1185 letters. (I’m not going to record it here because proofing that shit would take up the rest of my day.) What impresses me about this tidbit is not just that Kean set down specific parameters for what the longest word in the English language could be (no foreign words, no nonsense words, must have appeared in an English language document whose purpose was not to set the record for the longest word ever) but the lengths he went to verify this bit of, dare I say, throw-away trivia. Kean provides a page-long end note describing his research into this subject, including a description of historical naming conventions of compounds and his many hours in the Library of Congress searching through old copies of Chemical Abstracts. This sounds like an excessive amount of effort for info that isn’t even useful on Jeopardy (no way that word fits on those tiny screens).
This brings me to the second reason I love Kean: for his end notes. Each end note promises an additional story, something that maybe didn’t quite fit into the narrative of the main text but needed to be shared. In a note on 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe, Kean can’t resist telling us about Brahe’s death. While he most likely died of mercury poisoning, Brahe was rumored to have died of a ruptured bladder, because at a dinner party with some minor royals, he drank too much but refused to get up and go to the bathroom for fear of being rude to his social betters. If you read a book by Kean and don’t read the end notes, you’re missing out on half the fun.
The Disappearing Spoon is primarily a collection of stories about the people that have discovered and studied the elements of the periodic table, the dramatic events surrounding those discoveries, and the elements themselves. The title of the book is taken from a science prank involving the metal gallium. Gallium is moldable and also has a melting point of only 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A particularly impish scientist may make spoons out of gallium and serve them with tea, then watch his guests’ confusion as the spoons “disappear” in their cups. All the best scientists are known for such shenanigans.
There are many heroes in this book, like Dmitri Mendeleev. Born in Siberia, Mendeleev’s father died when he was 13. His mother had high hopes for her son, so she rode 1200 miles with him on horseback across the snow-covered Ural Mountains to enroll him in a Moscow university, which rejected him. Then she rode him 400 miles to St. Petersburg to enroll him in his father’s alma mater. Once he was enrolled, Mendeleev’s mother promptly died, while Mendeleev went on to do great things, including create the first periodic table.
Some stories are less inspiring. Fritz Haber’s work with nitrogen led to cheap industrial fertilizer and has likely helped feed much of the world; he even won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918. His real interest, though, was in explosives, and during World War I, Germany recruited him for their gas warfare division. He spent years perfecting chemical weapons for the Germans and, just one year after accepting his Nobel Prize, was charged with international war crimes. Later, when the Nazis came to power, Haber was exiled because of his Jewish ancestry. He died in 1934 on his way to England to seek refuge. Meanwhile, the Nazis perfected a second-generation chemical that Haber had originally invented and used it to gas millions of Jews.
If bite-sized trivia is what you’re after, there’s also a lot of that in this book. Want to know what the deadliest element is? It’s thallium, which can wriggle into the body by pretending to be potassium and then start unravelling proteins, causing serious and often critical physical damage. Did you know that bismuth is the “bis” in Pepto-Bismol, even though bismuth is technically radioactive and should be terrible for people? Or that copper became an important public health tool for coating pipes after the tragic American Legion convention in 1976 that led to the deaths of 34 people, when a never-before-seen bacteria coasted through a Philadelphia hotel’s air conditioning system? The newly discovered sickness was termed Legionnaire’s disease.
All that and more is sure to make you a hit at your next cocktail party. And if that doesn’t work, you can always tell a science joke.