I have a review of Sam Kean’s book The Disappearing Spoon in the latest issue of Nature. I am posting the pre-edited version here mostly because a change made to the text after I’d seen the proofs has inverted my meaning in the published version in an important way, rendering it most confusing. Such things happen. But this is what it was meant to say.
I really didn’t want to be too hard on this book, and I hope I wasn’t – it does have genuine merits, and I feel sure Kean will write some more good stuff. But it did sometimes make me grind my teeth.
The Disappearing Spoon
Little, Brown & Co, New York.
Can there be a more pointless enterprise in scientific taxonomy than redesigning the Periodic Table? What is it that inspires these spirals, pretzels, pyramids and hyper-cubes? They hint at a suspicion that we have not yet fully cracked the geometry of the elements, that there is some hidden understanding to be teased out from these baroque juxtapositions of nature’s ‘building blocks’. It is probably the same impulse that motivated grand unified theories and supersymmetry – a determination to find cryptic order and simplicity, albeit here inappropriately directed towards contingency.
To call the Periodic Table contingent might elicit howls of protest, for the allowed configurations of electrons around nuclei are surely a deterministic consequence of quantum mechanics. But the logic of these arrangements is in the end tortuous, with the electron-shell occupancy (2, 8, 18…) subdivided and interleaved. The delicate balance of electron-electron interactions creates untidy anomalies such as non-sequential sub-shell filling and the postponed incursions of the d and f subshells, making the Periodic Table especially unwieldy in two dimensions. And relativistic effects – the distortion of electron energies by their tremendous speeds in heavy atoms – create oddities such as mercury’s low melting point and gold’s yellow lustre. All can be explained, but not elegantly.
There is thus little to venerate aesthetically in the Periodic Table, a messy family tree whose charm stems more from its quirks than its orderliness. No one doubts its mnemonic utility, but new-fangled configurations of the elements will not improve that function more than infinitesimally. It seems perverse that we continue to regard the Table as an object of beauty, rather than as just the piecemeal way things turned out at this level in the hierarchy of matter.
More pertinently, it seems odd still to regard it as the intellectual framework of chemistry. Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon implicitly accepts that notion, although he is more interested in presenting it as a cast of characters, a way of telling stories about ‘all of the wonderful and artful and ugly aspects of human beings and how we interact with the physical world.’ Those stories are here unashamedly as much about physics as chemistry, for exploring the nether reaches of the Periodic Table has depended on nuclear physics and particle accelerators. With molecules featuring only occasionally as receptacles into which atoms of specific elements are fitted like stones in jewellery, The Disappearing Spoon is not the survey of chemistry it might at first seem.
So what, you might say – except that by making the Periodic Table the organizational emblem of his book, Kean ends up with a similarly piecemeal construction, an arrangement of facts about the behaviours and histories of the elements rather than a thesis about our conception of the material world. It is an attractive collection of tales, but lacks a moral: resolutely from the ‘there’s a thing’ school of science writing, it is best taken in small, energizing bites than digested in one sitting. This makes for enjoyable snacking, and I defy anyone not to learn something – in my case, for example, the story (treated with appropriate caution) of Scott of the Antarctic’s misadventure with tin solder, allegedly converted by the extreme cold into a brittle allotrope. The more familiar tale of the disintegrating buttons of Napoleon’s troops in the fateful Russian campaign, alluded to here, furnished the title of Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s portmanteau of ‘molecules that changed history’, Napoleon’s Buttons (Tarcher/Puttnam, 2003), another example of this genre – and indeed most of Kean’s stories have been told before.
It should be said, moreover, that when the reader learns something, it is at what we might call a particular cognitive level – namely, that which Kelvin considers Rutherford to be ‘full of crap’ and William Crookes’ dalliance with spiritualism enabled ‘135 years of New Age-y BS’. There’s a fine line between accessible informality and ahistorical sloppiness, between the wryness of hindsight and smirks at the conventions (and sartorial norms) of the past. And although Kean’s writing has the virtues of energy and pace, one hopes that his cultural horizons might come to extend beyond the United States: rarely have I felt so constantly reminded of an author’s nationality, whether by Cold War partisanship or references to Mentos and Life Savers.
More serious is the Whiggish strain that turns retrospective errors into irredeemable gaffes rather than the normal business of science. Emilio Segrè certainly slipped up when he failed to spot the first transuranic element, neptunium, and Linus Pauling’s inside-out model of DNA was worse than a poor guess, ignoring the implausibility of the closely packed anionic phosphate groups. But scientists routinely perpetrate such mistakes, and it is more illuminating to put them in context than to present them as pratfalls.
The Disappearing Spoon is a first book, and its flaws detract only slightly from the promise its author exhibits. His next will doubtless give a more telling indication of what he can do.