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Review: The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean

A confession: Back in my undergraduate days, I was a physics major, which means that a favourite pastime among my classmates was telling ourselves that physics was much more fundamental, and therefore more important, than the other sciences. We were particularly perturbed that our first-year chemistry textbook was called Chemistry: The Central Science, when everyone knew that chemistry was the second-most-basic pursuit, the great runner-up in the race for cosmic significance.

And yet, it seemed to be chemistry that actually had an impact on people's lives: We build airplanes from aluminum, make computer chips out of silicon, fear bombs made from uranium and lust after gold; we breathe in oxygen, and when you look in the mirror, a carbon-based life form looks back at you. It was chemists who discovered the properties of those elements, and who - with great difficulty, over several centuries - deduced how each chemical element was related to the others. The document that sums up those relationships is, of course, the trusty Periodic Table, the components of which serve as the dramatis personae for Sam Kean's ambitious but user-friendly book about the weird and wonderful world of the chemical elements.

Kean's title comes from an old parlour trick involving gallium, a metal that melts at just above standard room temperature. A spoon made from gallium looks normal, but melts the moment it's dipped into a cup of Earl Grey.

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Such chemical shenanigans are a recurring theme. Back in 1910, György Hevesy was studying radioactivity in Ernest Rutherford's lab in Manchester. Hevesy, a "bald, droopy-cheeked, mustached aristocrat from Hungary," became suspicious of the meals he was being served in his English boarding house; Monday's hamburgers, he suspected, were being recycled as Thursday's "fresh" beef chili.

Purposely taking too much meat one evening, he slyly sprinkled a trace amount of radioactive lead onto his leftovers. The next day, Hevesy returned with a new detector invented by his colleague, Hans Geiger.

"Sure enough, when he waved it over that night's goulash, Geiger's counter went furious: click-click-click." Hevesy confronted his landlady with the evidence but, as Kean explains, she was so charmed by Hevesy's ingenuity that she didn't get mad at him, though there's "no historical record of whether she altered her menu." Radioactive "tracers" are now ubiquitous in medical diagnostics.

Of course, some of Kean's stories have a darker side. His chapter on the history of chemical warfare, focusing on the work of German chemist Fritz Haber, is especially gripping. Before the First World War, Haber discovered a process for making cheap fertilizer on an industrial scale; his work has probably saved millions from starvation. When war broke out, however, Haber was recruited by the German army's gas warfare division and eagerly worked toward the perfection of chemical weaponry. ("It's a sad truth that men like Haber pop up frequently throughout history - petty Fausts who twist scientific innovations into efficient killing devices," Kean writes.)

Haber first experimented with bromine; shells filled with a bromide compound were hurled at Russian troops in 1915, but proved ineffective. He then turned his attention to bromine's deadlier chemical cousin, chlorine, which was of course used to horrific effect in the Western trenches. (As Haber was experimenting with ever-deadlier gases, his wife, herself a chemist, walked into the garden with his army pistol and killed herself.)

Haber's career may seem like one big contradiction: He won the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on fertilizers, but he was also prosecuted for war crimes for his role in developing chemical weapons and supervising their use on the battlefield. When the Nazis came to power, Haber, who had Jewish roots, was forced to flee his homeland; he died while en route to England.

But Haber's legacy has one last dark chapter. In the early 1920s, Haber's colleagues, building on his research, developed the pesticide known as Zyklon A; during the Second World War, German chemists tinkered with the formula to produce Zyklon B, used to kill millions of Jews - including some of Haber's relatives - in Nazi death camps. (Kean may be giving Haber too much credit when he says he personally "invented" Zyklon A; even so, it is a compelling story.)

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Kean's writing has a certain flair, and he does a remarkable job of keeping The Disappearing Spoon jargon-free. Unfortunately, there are times when he tends to oversimplify, and some of his colourful metaphors - with references to Homer's Odyssey, the Rock of Gibraltar or Genghis Khan - seem to come out of left field.

Another seemingly small oversight bothers me simply because it could so easily have been avoided: The book includes, at the back, the periodic table of the elements. Each "box" gives the atomic number, the atomic weight, and of course the symbol for each element. But for some reason it doesn't give their names. Most of us know that C is carbon, N is nitrogen, and O is oxygen - but what about Th, Hs, or Bk? I'd have to dig out my undergraduate textbook and look them up.

Dan Falk's most recent book is In Search of Time: Journeys along a Curious Dimension.

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