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Behind the periodic table

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

Little, Brown and Company: 2010. 400 pp. $24.99, £18.99 9780316051644 | ISBN: 978-0-3160-5164-4

Aesthetically speaking, there is little to venerate in the periodic table. It is a messy family tree whose charm stems more from its quirks than its orderliness. No one doubts its mnemonic utility, but it is perverse that we regard the table both as an object of beauty and as an intellectual framework of chemistry, rather than simply as the piecemeal way things turned out at this level in the hierarchy of matter.

In The Disappearing Spoon, writer Sam Kean accepts the reverential notion of the periodic table. He portrays it using a cast of characters whose stories illustrate our interactions with the physical world. By weaving handfuls of tales into loose themes in each chapter, he leaves no corner of the table untouched. All readers will learn something — in my case, how the tin solder belonging to Robert Scott of the Antarctic was allegedly converted into a brittle form by the extreme cold. But most of Kean's tales have been told before. Despite focusing on the periodic table, the book is not the survey of chemistry one might expect. The Disappearing Spoon dwells as much on nuclear physics as on chemistry, and molecules feature only occasionally or implicitly. It is an attractive collection, but lacks a moral.

Kean writes with energy and pace. Yet there is a fine line between the wryness of hindsight and smirks at the conventions of the past. Emilio Segrè did slip up when he failed to spot the first element heavier than uranium — neptunium — and Linus Pauling's inside-out triple-helix model of DNA was worse than a poor guess, ignoring the implausibility of the closely packed anionic phosphate groups. But it would be more illuminating to put such routine mistakes into context than to deride them.

Chemists have tried many ways of portraying the order of the elements. Credit: P. J. STEWART (2007)/C. WENCZEK, BORN DIGITAL

The cult of the periodic table has led to many pointless attempts to find a new taxonomy of the elements. The resulting spirals, pretzels, pyramids and hyper-cubes only reveal that we have not yet cracked the geometry of the elements, that there is some hidden understanding to be teased out from these baroque juxtapositions of nature's building blocks. Similar desires to find cryptic order probably motivate the search for grand unified theories and supersymmetry; but in the case of the table, such impulses are inappropriately directed towards contingency.

To call the periodic table contingent will probably elicit howls of protest from many scientists, who would contend that the allowed configurations of electrons around nuclei are surely a predictable consequence of quantum mechanics. But the logic of these arrangements is tortuous. Electron shells are subdivided and become interleaved as they are filled by electrons, and the delicate balance of electron–electron interactions creates untidy anomalies. Relativistic effects — the distortion of electron energies by their tremendous speeds in heavy atoms — elicit oddities such as mercury's low melting point and gold's yellow lustre. All can be explained, but not elegantly.

In making the periodic table the organizational emblem of his book, Kean ends up with an arrangement of facts about the behaviours and histories of the elements that does not add up to a thesis about our conception of the material world. Consequently it is best taken in small bites, rather than digested at one sitting.

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Ball, P. Behind the periodic table. Nature 466, 442 (2010).

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