We’re History: The Tales of the Chemists’ Lives

May 1, 2011 - New York, NY

From Chemical Engineering Progress, May 1, 2011, p. 64

By Neil Gussman, communications manager, Chemical Heritage Foundation

If chemistry is more a business than a pleasure for you, then you may have missed the flurry of books based on the periodic table published in the last several years. But, in this International Year of Chemistry, we can all mix business with pleasure in a book just out in paperback.

In 2007, the world marked the centennial of the death of Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table of elements. One of the more recent books about this icon of chemistry was a 400-pager written by Sam Kean—with a title and cover art as retro as its l00-plus-year-old subject. In fact, the title of the book contains almost as many letters (106) as the periodic table has named elements (112 and counting): The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. . . .

Kean weaves together the lives and times of notable savants and scoundrels of chemistry to tell the stories of elements. For example, Chapter X opens with 15 scientists on the cover of Time magazine—its Men of the Year in 1960. In the first four decades of the 20th century, Americans earned 20 Nobel prizes in science; in the 40s and 50s, more than twice that number, 42, earned the coveted prize in half the time.

Kean later delves into the search for technetium, the 43rd element and the most difficult to discover of the 92 elements that exist outside nuclear reactors. In the decade before World War II, German scientists Walter and Ida Noddack claimed to have discovered Element 43 and were proved wrong. Others also tried and failed, until Emilio Segre, an Italian Jew who escaped the Holocaust through America, pinned down the elusive element. Two decades later, Segre was on the cover of Time.

After lauding Segre and explaining some of the details of his escape from the fate of Jews under Mussolini, Kean takes Segre down a peg. He describes how the impetuous chemist missed discovering another element, and ties that mistake to a larger mistake made bv the great American chemist Linus Pauling—who missed discovering the structure of DNA. This same Linus Pauling went on to become the only recipient of two individual Nobel prizes—in chemistry and peace—but James Watson and Francis Crick beat Pauling to the discovery of the structure of DNA. In a delightful (and disgusting) aside, Kean says DNA was first discovered almost a century earlier in 1869, by a Swiss chemist who “poured alcohol and the stomach juice of pigs onto pus-soaked bandages until only a sticky, goopy grayish substance remained.” The goop leads to stories about phosphorus (Element 15) and on through the periodic table.

Writing about Pauling, Kean says:

“He was the Leonardo of chemistry”—the one who, as Leonardo did drawing humans, got the anatomical details right for the first time. And since chemistry is basically the study of the forming and breaking of bonds, Pauling single-handedly modernized the sleepy field. He absolutely deserved one of the greatest scientific compliments ever paid, when a colleague said Pauling proved ‘that chemistry could be understood rather than being memorized.’”

Amid the flurry of less-interesting books on Mendeleev’s creation, Kean could receive the same compliment. The Disappearing Spoon shows that chemistry can be understood in all its rich history of competition, discovery, achievement and tragedy. In an ideal world, where science was truly central to high school and college learning for all students, Kean’s book would be required reading—before all the dreary daily details create a lasting dull impression of chemistry.

Kean explains chemists and chemistry using the periodic table as a frame of reference, but without explaining very much of the periodic table itself. If reading this delightful book leaves you wanting to know more about how the periodic table works, pick up a copy of The Periodic Kingdom by Peter Atkins, which was reviewed in CEP’s May 2010 “We’re History” column The two books complement each other very well. Read both as part of your own observance of the International Year of Chemistry 2011.

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