The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
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The Periodic Table is one of man's crowning scientific achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.
We learn that Marie Curie used to provoke jealousy in colleagues' wives when she'd invite them into closets to see her glow-in-the-dark experiments. And that Lewis and Clark swallowed mercury capsules across the country and their campsites are still detectable by the poison in the ground. Why did Gandhi hate iodine? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium? And why did tellurium lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?
From the Big Bang to the end of time, it's all in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON.
International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) just outside Paris acts as the standards bureau’s standards bureau, making sure all the “franchises” stay in line. One of the more peculiar jobs of the BIPM is coddling the International Prototype Kilogram—the world’s official kilogram. It’s a two-inch-wide, 90 percent platinum cylinder that, by definition, has a mass of exactly 1.000000… kilogram (to as many decimal places as you like). I’d say that’s about two pounds, but I’d feel guilty about being
different characters narrating each chapter. Before long, the discussion turned acrimonious. Annoyed at Mendeleev’s crowing, Lecoq de Boisbaudran claimed an obscure Frenchman had developed the periodic table before Mendeleev and that the Russian had usurped this man’s ideas—a scientific sin second only to forging data. (Mendeleev was never so good about sharing credit. Meyer, in contrast, cited Mendeleev’s table in his own work in the 1870s, which may have made it seem to later generations that
mythic name for Scandinavia; and, at Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s insistence, Gadolin’s namesake, gadolinium. Overall, of the seven elements discovered in Ytterby, six were Mendeleev’s missing lanthanides. History might have been very different—Mendeleev reworked his table incessantly and might have filled in the entire lower realm of the table after cerium by himself—if only he’d made the trip west, across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, to this Galápagos Island of the periodic table.
that was too obvious. So, as Hevesy later recalled, “while the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving [Max von] Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals.” To do this, he used aqua regia—a caustic mix of nitric and hydrochloric acids that fascinated alchemists because it dissolved “royal metals” such as gold (though not easily, Hevesy remembered). When the Nazis ransacked Bohr’s institute, they scoured the building for loot or evidence of wrongdoing but left the
caused by “fool’s fool’s gold.” Three Irishmen, including Patrick (Paddy) Hannan, were traversing the outback in 1893 when one of their horses lost a shoe twenty miles from home. It might have been the luckiest breakdown in history. Within days, without having to dig an inch into the dirt, they’d collected eight pounds of gold nuggets just walking around. Honest but dim, the trio filed a claim with territory officials, which put the location on public record. Within a week, hundreds of