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Boston Skeptics’ Book Club #16: The Disappearing Spoon

Posted on : Apr-05-2011 | By : Mary | In : Book Club



Gallium Spoons: Only for hardcore fans of heavy metal (poisoning)

Last time, at the Boston Skeptics’ Book Club: Discovery. Mayhem. Profiteering. Arrogance. Science! All of these points and more were involved in the discovery and use of elements on the Periodic Table.

The Disappearing Spoon is divided up into five parts:

  1. “Orientation: Column by Column, Row by Row.” This section discusses the basics of the table and how the geography is the key to decoding the properties of the elements. We take a trip to the town of Ytterby in Sweden, the proverbial Galapagos of the Periodic Table because of the ample supply of distinct minerals and Lanthanides. Also, we learn that antimony used to be used as a laxative pill, and it was so robust it was actually retrieved afterwards and passed down through family generations. Yum!
  2. “Making Atoms, Breaking Atoms.” This chapter starts off with a discussion that can be summed up by Carl Sagan: “We are all star stuff contemplating star stuff.” Then it transitions into how science and the elements were used as weapons of war. One particularly ruthless scientist, Fritz Haber (a man who converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to benefit his career), developed chemical warfare and bombs for the Nazis in WWII, including the infamous Zyklon B (used in gas chambers during the Holocaust). Finally it concludes with the rabidly anti-science (among other things) John Birch Society and how American scientists envied the allegedly more scientific Russian Marxists. But there’s a twist! The Marxists actually did not believe in genetic theory and in fact shipped dissenting scientists off to work as mining slaves.
  3. “Periodic Confusion: The Emergence of Complexity.” The theme of this section was the impact that the elements can have on our human physiology. The cadmium sludge disaster at the Kamioka Mines killed many rice farmers because cadmium can replace many minerals in one’s body and cause broken bones and kidney failure. Silver and copper are antimicrobial because they disrupt the metabolism of microbes. Also: How tastebuds work!
  4. “The Elements of Human Character.” Did you know that Marie Curie named the element polonium as a political statement to show her controversial (?) support of her home country Poland? Neither did most people alive at the time she named it. And so, the theme of this section is how the elements have been viewed and used in popular culture. One fun story involves Nazis looking for illegal gold and Neils Bohr dissolving some gold Nobel Prize medals (given to him for safekeeping) so that he wouldn’t get caught. (After the war, his lab precipitated the gold out and had it recast.) Other stories include: A possible theory behind the “Midas Touch” legend; Robert Lowell, the famous manic-depressive poet, and lithium; and how the man who discovered x-rays thought he had gone insane once he saw the bones in his hand. Fortunately, in the last story, he uses his wife to confirm that she can see bones too, so he knows he’s not crazy. However, she thinks she’s just seen a death omen. But hey, all for science, right?
  5. “Element Science: Today and Tomorrow.” This section explores how modern scientists endeavor to discover new elements in the table by applying extreme or different forces to current elements. For example, subjecting some elements to extreme cold can cause them to form a new atomic layout (as one unfortunate South Pole expedition found out when their tin-soldered oil cans broke apart at the seams and leaked all over their food). There’s a bit of discussion on the people who work for the Bureau of Standards and Measurements (who are the gold standard of anal-retentiveness)., and the mystery of scientific constants, which may not always be as constant as we once thought.

If you’re looking for some science, history, and tales of adventure, this book is definitely worth a read. The biggest complaint about this book at our discussion table was that it (like most of the science books we’ve been reading) jumps around a little too much chapter by chapter, although that probably is to be expected in a book that covers the diverse history of every single element in the Periodic Table. I enjoyed the historical tidbits and tales of nefarious scientists moreso than the actual science.

Our next book is Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. We are meeting up on Saturday, April 30 at 3pm in our normal meeting spot in the Harvard University Northwest Building (check previous posts for pictures and address). If, however, the weather is going to be beautiful (none of this sunny-with-a-cold-breeze shit we’ve been getting), I’ll post an announcement and we’ll meet up on Harvaaahhd Yaahhd, where we met in the summer. Bring yourself, bring a snack, and of course bring a book suggestion to add to our list!

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