The Disappearing Spoon

The Book of the Week is “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean, published in 2010.

This ebook consists of a series of anecdotes about elements of the periodic table. The author describes fundamental principles of chemistry, particle physics and astronomy; how certain elements were discovered or created, and their identifiers; and the reasons why there might or might not be life on other planets.

One bit of history thrown in, was that, during WWII, the Nazis bartered gold they had stolen– for tungsten (a valuable ingredient in weaponry) from supposedly neutral Portugal. Tungsten is a hard, solid metal that has a very high melting point.

Other elemental trivia include the facts that tantalum and niobium are used in phones for their density, heat-resistance and conductive abilities; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium and the one dropped on Nagasaki contained plutonium. With advances in computer science, Monte Carlo simulations (a mathematics model that computes probabilities) have become used more often than physical experiments in recent decades.

Read the book to learn how it was determined that cadmium was poisoning the rice paddies near the Kamioka mines in Japan just after WWII, how astronauts died in an accident when nitrogen was used in a spacecraft, what “measurement scientists” do, and much more.