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The Disappearing Spoon

Book Notes

Okay, here we go, traipsing both down memory lane AND across the periodic table. I so much enjoyed this book. It took me a while to read it, however, and I totally missed the Caltech Bookclub meetings about it. I ended up checking it out from two different libraries for a total of three checkouts, not because it wasn't interesting, but rather because I needed to just start reading it.

The book is all about the periodic table, its history and its current state. Kean gives us stories about the different parts of the table, along with the stories of the main characters in its development, including those who sidetracked along the way.

Kean discusses the various parts of the periodic table, going through the chemistry and the physics of different elements, along with the science of finding the elements and the politics of naming them.

So... much... fun.

Probably helped that a lot of it happened at Tech and at Berkeley.

If you like science, this is a good book. If you enjoy pondering the periodic table even a hundredth as much as I do (yes, I have it memorized!), I strongly recommend this book. Even if you don't even think about the periodic table much, it still makes a great book to read to the kids before bed.

The discovery of eka-aluminium, now known as gallium, raises the question of what really drives science forward — theories, which frame how people view the world, or experiments, the simplest of which can destroy elegant theories.
Page 54

Melts in your hand! Geranium doesn't!

And after such a breakthrough, Böttger reasonably expected his freedom. Unfortunately, the king decided he was now too valuable to release and locked him up under tighter security.
Page 61

But if Ytterby had the proper economic conditions to make mining profitable and the proper geology to make it scientifically worthwhile, it still needed the proper social climate.
Page 61

They’re neither created nor destroyed: elements just are.
Page 65

Since the pinprick that existed back then, fourteen billion years ago, contained all the matter in the universe, everything around us must have been ejected from that speck.
Page 65

And if you’re looking for truly exotic materials, astronomers believe that Jupiter’s erratic magnetic field can be explained only by oceans of black, liquid “metallic hydrogen.” Scientists have seen metallic hydrogen on earth only for nanoseconds under the most exhaustively extreme conditions they can produce.
Page 70

Sure, promethium was useless, but scientists, of all people, cheer impractical discoveries, and the completion of the periodic table was epochal, the culmination of millions of man-hours.
Page 103


At this point, rooms full of young women with pencils (many of them scientists’ wives, who’d been hired to help out because they were crushingly bored in Los Alamos) would get a sheet with the random numbers and begin to calculate (sometimes without knowing what it all meant) how the neutron collided with a plutonium atom; whether it was gobbled up; how many new neutrons if any were released in the process; how many neutrons those in turn released; and so on.
Page 108

Other elements absorb extra neutrons like alcoholics do another shot at the bar — they’ll get sick someday but not for eons.
Page 113

The New Yorker staff answered, “We are already at work in our office laboratories on ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium.’ So far we just have the names.”
Page 116

But his first major scientific discovery, which propelled him to those other honors, was the result of dumb luck.
Page 116

As many inventions and discoveries are, alas.

A little childishly, he never earned more than a bachelor’s degree, not wanting to subject himself to more schooling.
Page 118

Cracked me up.

Jokes aside, much of a generation of Soviet science was squandered extracting nickel and other metals for Soviet industry.
Page 124

Hate politics like this.

“Leave [physicists] in peace,” Stalin graciously allowed. “We can always shoot them later.”
Page 125

However, though good science itself, Mendeleev’s work encouraged a lot of bad science, since it convinced people to look for something they were predisposed to find.
Page 138

Confirmation bias is a bitch.

Given that nationalism had destroyed Europe a decade earlier, other scientists did not look kindly on those Teutonic, even jingoistic names — both the Rhine and Masuria had been sites of German victories in World War I.
Page 139

In fact, Lawrence blurted out, oblivious to the Italian’s feelings, how happy he was to save $184 per month to spend on equipment, like his precious cyclotron. Ouch. This was further proof that Lawrence, for all his skill in securing funds and directing research, was obtuse with people.
Page 141

“Fission… escaped us, although it was called specifically to our attention by Ida Noddack, who sent us an article in which she clearly indicated the possibility…. The reason for our blindness is not clear.”

(As a historical curiosity, he might also have pointed out that the two people who came closest to discovering fission, Noddack and Irène Joliot-Curie — daughter of Marie Curie — and the person who eventually did discover it, Lise Meitner, were all women.)
Page 142

Yeah. The "reason" is not clear. Right.

It’s not clear why Pauling bothered to have someone check him if he wasn’t going to listen, but Pauling’s reason for ignoring the student is clear. He wanted scientific priority — he wanted every other DNA idea to be considered a knockoff of his.
Page 147

If certain bacteria, fungi, or algae inch across something made of copper, they absorb copper atoms, which disrupt their metabolism (human cells are unaffected). The microbes choke and die after a few hours. This effect — the oligodynamic, or “self-sterilizing,” effect — makes metals more sterile than wood or plastic and explains why we have brass doorknobs and metal railings in public places.
Page 168

Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius.
Page 179

I need this on a t-shirt.

Hundreds died within weeks — further proof that when it comes to panaceas the credulity of human beings is boundless.
Page 181

After determining that life has a bias toward handedness on a deep level, Pasteur suggested that chirality was the sole “well-marked line of demarcation that at the present can be drawn between the chemistry of dead matter and the chemistry of living matter.”

If you’ve ever wondered what defines life, chemically there’s your answer.
Page 181

The clever part was that both the chiral catalyst with the rhodium atom and the target 2D molecule were sprawling and bulky. So when they approached each other to react, they did so like two obese animals trying to have sex.
Page 183

Panic never kicks in, despite the lack of oxygen. That might seem incredible if you’ve ever been trapped underwater. The instinct not to suffocate will buck you to the surface. But our hearts, lungs, and brains actually have no gauge for detecting oxygen.

Those organs judge only two things: whether we’re inhaling some gas, any gas, and whether we’re exhaling carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide dissolves in blood to form carbonic acid, so as long as we purge CO2 with each breath and tamp down the acid, our brains will relax.

It’s an evolutionary kludge, really. It would make more sense to monitor oxygen levels, since that’s what we crave. It’s easier — and usually good enough — for cells to check that carbonic acid is close to zero, so they do the minimum.
Page 188

More than anything, politics proved the folly of scientists burying their heads in lab work and hoping the world around them figured out its problems as tidily as they did their equations.
Page 205

After years of willed invisibility, Meitner was suddenly subject to Nazi pogroms. And when a colleague, a chemist, tried to turn her in, she had no choice but to flee, with just her clothes and ten deutsch marks.
Page 218

The eka-lanthanum Joliot-Curie had found was plain lanthanum, the fallout of the first tiny nuclear explosions! Hevesy, who saw early drafts of Joliot-Curie’s papers from that time, later reminisced on how close she’d come to making that unimaginable discovery. But Joliot-Curie, Hevesy said, “didn’t trust herself enough” to believe the correct interpretation. Meitner trusted herself, and she convinced Hahn that everyone else was wrong.
Page 218

He had read Goethe in the original German and found him mediocre. I was still young enough to be impressed by any strong convictions, and the denunciation made me suspicious of Goethe as a great thinker. Years
Page 240

He did so with all the enthusiasm of a dilettante, and about as much competence.
Page 240

As usual, Goethe picked the losing side because it pleased him aesthetically.
Page 241

In the late 1920s, the legendary Hungarian (and later American) designer László Moholy-Nagy drew an academic distinction between “forced obsolescence” and “artificial obsolescence.” Forced obsolescence is the normal course of things for technologies, the roughage of history books: plows gave way to reapers, muskets to Gatling guns, wooden boat hulls to steel.

In contrast, artificial obsolescence did and increasingly would dominate the twentieth century, Moholy-Nagy argued. People were abandoning consumer goods not because the goods were superannuated, but because the Joneses had some newer, fancier design. Moholy-Nagy — an artist and something of a philosopher of design — couched artificial obsolescence as materialistic, infantile, and a “moral disintegration.”
Page 244

He had read and absorbed Moholy-Nagy’s theories of design, but instead of letting the moral reproach of artificial obsolescence hem him in, Parker saw it in true American fashion: a chance to make a lot of money. If people had something better to buy, they would, even if they didn’t need
Page 245

Either way, the name fit the confessional poet, who exemplified the mad artist — someone like van Gogh or Poe, whose genius stems from parts of the psyche most of us cannot access, much less harness for artistic purposes.
Page 251

Special proteins attach to people’s DNA each morning, and after a fixed time they degrade and fall off. Sunlight resets the proteins over and over, so they hold on much longer. In fact, the proteins fall off only after darkness falls — at which point the brain should “notice” the bare DNA and stop producing stimulants.
Page 253

Many artists report feeling flatlined or tranquilized on lithium.
Page 254

Though an essential trace nutrient in all animals (in humans, the depletion of selenium in the bloodstream of AIDS patients is a fatally accurate harbinger of death), selenium is toxic in large doses.
Page 258

what pathological science is not. It’s not fraud, since the adherents of a pathological science believe they’re right — if only everyone else could see it. It’s not pseudoscience, like Freudianism and Marxism, fields that poach on the imprimatur of science yet shun the rigors of the scientific method.

It’s also not politicized science, like Lysenkoism, where people swear allegiance to a false science because of threats or a skewed ideology. Finally, it’s not general clinical madness or merely deranged belief.

It’s a particular madness, a meticulous and scientifically informed delusion. Pathological scientists pick out a marginal and unlikely phenomenon that appeals to them for whatever reason and bring all their scientific acumen to proving its existence.
Page 259

But the game is rigged from the start: their science serves only the deeper emotional need to believe in something.
Page 259

A pathological science takes advantage of that caution. Basically, its believers use the ambiguity about evidence as evidence — claiming that scientists don’t know everything and therefore there’s room for my pet theory, too.
Page 260

But what really makes the ongoing hunt for megalodons pathological is that doubt from the establishment only deepens people’s convictions.
Page 263

Still, a few skeptics, especially at Cal Tech, seethed. Cold fusion upset these men’s scientific sensibilities, and Pons and Fleischmann’s arrogance upset their modesty.
Page 265

One word, little t. Caltech, please.

Whenever pure tin tools or tin coins or tin toys got cold, a whitish rust began to creep over them like hoarfrost on a window in winter. The white rust would break out into pustules, then weaken and corrode the tin, until it crumbled and eroded away. Unlike iron rust, this was not a chemical reaction. As scientists now know, this happens because tin atoms can arrange themselves inside a solid in two different ways, and when they get cold, they shift from their strong “beta” form to the crumbly, powdery “alpha” form.
Page 279

Various European cities with harsh winters (e.g., St. Petersburg) have legends about expensive tin pipes on new church organs exploding into ash the instant the organist blasted his first chord. (Some pious citizens were more apt to blame the Devil.)
Page 280

Scientists can now coax ice into forming fourteen distinctly shaped crystals by using high-pressure chambers. Some ices sink rather than float in water, and others form not six-sided snowflakes, but shapes like palm leaves or heads of cauliflower.
Page 282

Some cosmologists today calculate that our entire universe burst into existence when a single submicronanobubble slipped free from that foam and began expanding at an exponential rate. It’s a handsome theory, actually, and explains a lot — except, unfortunately, why this might have happened.
Page 308

The first complex organic molecules may have formed not in the turbulent ocean, as is commonly thought, but in water bubbles trapped in Arctic-like sheets of ice. Water is quite heavy, and when water freezes, it crushes together dissolved “impurities,” such as organic molecules, inside bubbles. The concentration and compression in those bubbles might have been high enough to fuse those molecules into self-replicating systems.
Page 309

Oklo was powered by nothing but uranium, water, and blue-green algae (i.e., pond scum). Really. Algae in a river near Oklo produced excess oxygen after undergoing photosynthesis. The oxygen made the water so acidic that as it trickled underground through loose soil, it dissolved the uranium from the bedrock.

All uranium back then had a higher concentration of the bomb-ready uranium-235 isotope — about 3 percent, compared to 0.7 percent today. So the water was volatile already, and when underground algae filtered the water, the uranium was concentrated in one spot, achieving a critical mass. Though necessary, a critical mass wasn’t sufficient.

In general, for a chain reaction to occur, uranium nuclei must not only be struck by neutrons, they must absorb them. When pure uranium fissions, its atoms shoot out “fast” neutrons that bounce off neighbors like stones skipped across water.

Those are basically duds, wasted neutrons. Oklo uranium went nuclear only because the river water slowed the neutrons down enough for neighboring nuclei to snag them. Without the water, the reaction never would have begun. But there’s more. Fission also produces heat, obviously.

And the reason there’s not a big crater in Africa today is that when the uranium got hot, it boiled the water away. With no water, the neutrons became too fast to absorb, and the process ground to a halt. Only when the uranium cooled down did water trickle back in — which slowed the neutrons and restarted the reactor. It was a nuclear Old Faithful, self-regulating, and it consumed 13,000 pounds of uranium over 150,000 years at sixteen sites around Oklo, in on/ off cycles of 150 minutes.
Page 323


Almost all life forms use metallic elements in trace amounts to create, store, or shuttle energetic molecules around inside them. Animals primarily use the iron in hemoglobin, but the earliest and most successful forms of life, especially blue-green algae, used magnesium.
Page 328

And because Einstein determined that space and time are intertwined, some physicists believe that alpha variations in time could imply alpha variations across space. According to this theory, just as life arose on earth and not the moon because earth has water and an atmosphere, perhaps life arose here, on a seemingly random planet in a seemingly unremarkable pocket of space, because only here do the proper cosmological conditions exist for sturdy atoms and full molecules.
Page 330

First are superatoms. These clusters — between eight and one hundred atoms of one element — have the eerie ability to mimic single atoms of different elements. For instance, thirteen aluminium atoms grouped together in the right way do a killer bromine: the two entities are indistinguishable in chemical reactions. This happens despite the cluster being thirteen times larger than a single bromine atom and despite aluminium being nothing like the lacrimatory poison-gas staple. Other combinations of aluminium can mimic noble gases, semiconductors, bone materials like calcium, or elements from pretty much any other region of the periodic table.
Page 342

Assuming that he would decipher DNA, Pauling had not broken much of a sweat on his calculations at first, and Ava lit into him: “If [DNA] was such an important problem, why didn’t you work harder at it?” Even so, Linus loved her deeply, and perhaps one reason he stayed at Cal Tech so long and never transferred his allegiance to Berkeley, even though the latter was a much stronger school at the time, was that one of the more prominent members of the Berkeley faculty, Robert Oppenheimer, later head of the Manhattan Project, had tried to seduce Ava, which made Linus furious.
Page 358

Overall, the history of varying constants resembles the history of alchemy: even when there’s real science going on, it’s hard to sift it from the mysticism. Scientists tend to invoke inconstants to explain away whatever cosmological mysteries happen to trouble a particular era, such as the accelerating universe.
Page 373

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