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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
Sam Kean
read on September 1, 2010

This might be the first book I've read this year that has nothing to do with any of the others. No behavioral econ, no finance, no psychology... just chemistry and physics. Good times! I saw it billed as an accessible, informative, erudite explanation of interesting stories from the history of chem/physics. Sort of like a Malcolm Gladwell-esque book about the periodic table, but with real science to back up the claims. By and large, the reviews were dead on. The book is chock-a-block full of really, really interesting anecdotes and history from chem and physics, and includes enough actual science-talk to make you feel smart, but not enough to make you feel dumb.

A few of my favorite bits:

  • Holy crap gallium is awesome! It looks like solid aluminium, but melts at something like 80 deg fahrenheit. This means you can be holding a clump of it in your hand and have it melt into something exactly like mercury, right there in your hand! ...! (The book is named after an old chemists trick of making a tea spoon out of gallium. When you stick it in your tea, it melts, scaring the crap out of people)
  • Explanation of aluminium vs aluminum. Apparently aluminium was once the most expensive and rare metal! Aluminium bullion was worth more than gold. Then John Hall figured out how to make loads of it for next-to-nothing. He ended up starting Alcoa and renaming the product Aluminum.
  • I finally learned what the vacuum tubes in old school computers did. The vacuum was necessary for an electrical charge to only be able to move one way. That was the only way to keep a one way current going, until they figured out semi-conductors in germanium and then silicon. That's how they got the transistor. Then they finally figured out how to etch the whole thing on a single piece of silicon, which is literally the same design we're using today, just like a billion times smaller.
  • The universe is 90% hydrogen, 10% helium. The rest is rounding error.
  • Every element up to lead is created inside stars. All the ones (naturally occurring) heavier than lead are created during supernovas, when a star blows up with enough force that all the atoms around it collide and fuse into new elements. What?! (Elements are also made via radioactivity, but that's less interesting)
  • There is an awesome theory that the Sun has a twin sun that it orbits with called Nemesis, which has it's own planets and asteroids orbiting it, and that each solar systems get close to each other every 20 million years or so, resulting in the regular asteroids that hit Earth every 20 million years or so and kill everything. Nemesis? Awesome name. The theory doesn't pan out, but it sounded so good.
  • Maybe the most interesting bit was that humans don't have any way to sense if they're getting oxygen. That terrible feeling you get when you hold your breath? That's just your body saying "too much CO2!" It knows when you're not exhaling, but has no oxygen sensors. Which means, if you walk into a room filled with say, pure nitrogen gas, you would breathe in and out like normal and have no idea that you're about to pass out and die. Because you're body is still exhaling the CO2, you would feel just dandy until you got light headed and died. So weird.
  • Lots more neat stuff. Einstein-Bose condensate, the coldest place in the universe was Boulder, lasers, sono-luminescense, lots of good stuff. Definitely a good one to read again sometime.

Author Bio:

Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and now he’s a writer in Washington, D.C. His stories have appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, and Psychology Today, among other places, and his work has been featured on “Radiolab” and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” among other shows. His books The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb were national bestsellers, and both were named an Amazon “Top 5” science books of the year. The Disappearing Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society for one of the top science books of 2010, while both The Violinist’s Thumb and The Dueling Neurosurgeons were nominated for PEN’s literary science writing award.