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In their elements

BOOK>> THE DISAPPEARING SPOON AND OTHER TRUE TALES OF MADNESS, LOVE, AND HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE PERIODIC TABLE OF THE ELEMENTS • by Sam Kean • Little Brown and Company • Rs 500

 
By Kartik Chandrashekhar
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageAt school the periodic table was one of those things to be mugged up.

Some - how the iron, silver and gold in Mendeleev’s chart seemed alien to the stuff we used everyday. Pity we did not have Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon. The book tells the histories of the elements in the periodic table, and in the process, gives a history of famous thinkers, war, literature and protest.

Kean says the science teachers that captured his attention most were the ones who explained science through stories. He uses the same technique for his book. Kean draws the title of his book from Paul Emile François Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s discovery of gallium, a metal with a low melting point. A spoon made of gallium will disappear in a cup of tea.

The science writer describes silver with a story about Stan Jones, a US Senate candidate. Jones was a big believer that the Y2K virus was going to wipe out civilization. He was especially concerned that people would not be able to find antibiotics. So he decided to get his immune system ready for the apocalypse in 2000. The candidate from Montana began drinking liquid silver. He’d heard silver had antibacterial effects. It was so, Kean says, but there was a serious—or hilarious—side effect. Jones ended up with blue skin. It was permanent.

imageKenneth Parker, the scion of the founder of Parker pens, is at the centre of another story. The younger Parker made a fortune in the 1940s off a new fountain pen with a tip made of ruthenium, an element harder than gold.

Some stories are tragic. Cadmium looks gorgeous, so cup makers in the 1940s began lining drinking glasses with it. Unfortunate ly, element 48 is highly toxic. When summer rolled arou nd, and people filled the shiny cups with lemonade and other acidic juices, they fell ill.

Kartik Chandrashekhar is a science writer

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