Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Disappearing Spoon: a very short review

Here I am again, twelve years late to the party, but please allow me to tell you about Sam Kean's wonderful The Disappearing Spoon.

The Disappearing Spoon is a history of chemistry organized around the periodic table of the elements.

Whoa! Back up! That sounded really boring! Let's try again:

The Disappearing Spoon is a collection of fascinating vignettes about the chemists, physicists, and other scientists who developed and refined our understanding of modern chemistry, grouped roughly into thematic categories of related tales, inter-sprinkled with just enough basic chemistry information to make you interested in something you (maybe) always thought was too boring for words.

That's better, but still doesn't do it.

The Disappearing Spoon is the sort of book where you start reading about Maria Goeppert, born in Germany in 1906, who was educated in Germany and met her husband, Joseph Mayer, then moved to Baltimore where he was a chemistry professor. You then learn that

her work touched on a mystery that was more difficult to grasp, a deceptively simple problem. The simplest element in the universe, hydrogen, is also the most abundant. The second-simplest element, helium, is the second most abundant. In an aesthetically tidy universe, the third element, lithium, would be the third most abundant, and so on. Our universe isn't tidy. The third most common element is oxygen, element 8. But why?

Now hooked on the question, so nicely-presented, you read on about Goeppert-Mayer's work on the nuclear shell model, and how it was able to explain the prevalence of oxygen in the universe, and how it led to being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. All well and good, the story then concludes:

Still, she never quite shook the stigma of being a dilettante. When the Swedish Academy announced in 1963 that she had won her profession's highest honor, the San Diego newspaper greeted her big day with the headline "S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize."

Many thanks to my great friend Roger, who raved about The Disappearing Spoon for years until I finally broke down and read it, wishing I had listened to him a decade ago.

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