Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Disappearing Spoon

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

Sam Kean
Little, Brown & Co, New York.
400 pages

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.


Maxine Clarke said...

I am an anti-fan of "top editing", currently in vogue at my favourite publication!

Philip Ball said...

Oh, is that what they all it? Seems to defeat the object of sending proofs, if it isn't restricted to just correcting obvious typos. I aim to be ultra-tolerant, having sat on the other side of the fence often enough. But to slip in a change that precisely reverses the meaning of the sentence was something of a surprise... Good to know your eyes are on it, Maxine.

William said...

I was checking out economist Thomas Sowell's website one day (don't ask) and he has a little rant about editors,

"When it comes to book publishers, neither principal editors nor copy-editors are held personally responsible for the quality of the writing when they finish with it. When something inaccurate, stupid, clumsy, or insipid appears under an author's name, nobody blames the editor. They blame the author. Some people have the courage of their convictions. Book editors have the courage of their anonymity.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that some editors are so courageous. 'How courageous are they?' as Johnny Carson used to say. Well, British editors aren't supposed to be as officious as American editors, but some bold genius at the well-known British publishing house Allen & Unwin changed 'capitalists' to 'workers' at one point in the British version of a book of mine—and published it that way, without even bothering to check with me. That's not a small change, especially in a book on Marxism."

(And he goes on:

Is this sort of thing common? Ever had a book get the same treatment? Should I expect the U.S. release of The Music Instinct to somehow end up militantly ethnocentric?

Unknown said...

After the broadcast of "Chemistry A Volatile History" several viewers commented on the beauty of the periodic table, one even going so far as saying that they had wept at the end of programme 2.

I was quite amazed, because I have to confess to have always been a bit puzzled by the idea that the periodic table is a thing of beauty. It's lop-sided, unsymmetrical, and in so many ways, really quite arbitrary until you get entangled in the underlying quantum mechanics.

But to say this seems to be anathema to most chemists. Perhaps we have a complex about compexity.

Cyclepath said...

How can you call this a "pre-edited version"? Its 818 words correspond with 214 words in the published version, and the whole review is only 535 words. Any editor faced with such a huge excess would have to do a massive amount of cutting. And where is the change that has been "slipped in"? I am not going to wade through 818 words looking for one out of dozens of differences with 244.

And it's good that Nature has chosen to illustrate your spiky review with a harmonious spiral. You seem to think that the periodic system is arbitrary and devoid of beauty, but it is precisely its orderliness that has inspired successive generations to capture its form in graphic images.

Would it be unfair to say that you are upset that someone has written a better book than yours on the same theme?

Philip Ball said...

I've suffered some frustrating things at the hands of editors, but nothing quite that priceless. Thanks - I'll definitely look up that piece. As I say, I try to give a lot of slack to editors, but there are times... This, though, is not really one of them - Nature is usually pretty good and hands-off.
Yes, it baffles me. But do does Schubert, which will have some people shaking their heads in despair at my insensitivity to beauty.
I'm not setting this as a puzzle, you know! Besides, my brief was to write 800 words, but I fully understand that these things must often be cut to fill the space available. I have no complaints at all about cutting, and that was not the source of the editing error in any event.
I don't believe that what inspires all these new designs for the PT is its beauty and orderliness, but rather, a belief (which I don't share) that we can somehow glean more understanding of the elements if only we can find the right geometry. But the PT is not geometrical - it has order, but not a particularly simple or elegant one. I've always considered the debate about where to put hydrogen, for example, a semantic one - we know what hydrogen is, wherever we choose to put it.
Sam's book is utterly different from mine. But of course, no reviewer can ever raise criticisms of a book on a subject on which he/she had written previously without risking accusations of sour grapes. The accuser is safe in the knowledge that the accusation is unanswerable.

Cyclepath said...

The effort to find a better visual representation of the periodic system is cumulative. Charles Janet's helix and its tabular translation are a perfect expression of the electronic structure of the elements, especially in the version where Edward Mazurs indicates the 20-odd departures from regular Aufbau. Valery Tsimmerman's geometrical transformation of Janet's table is even better as a table, but nothing beats the elegance of the helix. Roy Alexander's ribbon is the simplest possible 3-D representation. Whether these people were aiming primarily for truth or beauty they achieved both. I don't see how you can rubbish all these.

Eric Scerri said...

I rather agree with cyclepath's comment. There is nothing wrong with trying to find better representations of the periodic system. In fact it is consistent with the view of elements as natural kinds rather than as somehow created by we observers of the natural world. The periodic system in a striking way points to a deep regularity in nature, in spite of the anomalies and blemishes that Philip Ball points out. I believe that debates as to the correct placement of helium (either group 2 or 18) or hydrogen, (either group 1 or 17) and so on are quite legitimate again because the order among the elements is an objective fact not a matter of convention. Nevertheless I agree with some of Philip Ball's comments about Sam Kean's book although the popularity of the book is doing wonders for the public image of chemistry and chemical education. I also empathize with Philip Ball about the way that his review was handled. As I see it, these days publishers are not just greedy but often sloppy and even more given to just using authors.

Eric Scerri, author of
The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, OUP, 2007

Eric Scerri said...

One further point of clarification if I may.

I don't think the shape of the periodic table matters. What does matter in my view is the question of where the repetitions, admittedly approximate, occur.

For example should helium be regarded as an alkaline earth element because of its two outer electrons or a noble gas because of its full shell. This question is far from trivial and has been much discussed by chemists and philosophers of chemistry in recent years. It depends to some extent on whether one believes that chemistry is a reduced science and that its electronic configuration is all important or whether the chemical inertness of helium is the crucial factor. Although chemistry is generally regarded as being 'reduced' to quantum mechanics, chemists generally have the last say in placing He in the noble gases.

Incidentally the international conference on the philosophy of chemistry will take place in Oxford this year, from Aug 9-11 at University College. See the website for International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry.

eric scerri

JimmyGiro said...

The Periodic Table is like an old cricket score sheet, kept in the pavilion to remind members of the glory days.

In modern times, chemistry is less of a science, than an engineering discipline; churning out lab technicians for industry, whilst the 'chosen' few get funded to do a PhD on a further addition to some organic homologue, that nobody will ever use.

Face the facts, the first part of chemistry was learning dodgy rules and laws; the remaining parts are all about debunking those sacred icons.

If you want 'beauty' in science, then learn physics. That way you'll never have to fall back on a drunken rendition of:

"Two world wars, and one world cup..."

Chemists, you've had your day, now get over yourselves.

Eric Scerri said...

Let me guess JimmyGiro,

you probably think that physics has also explained away all of biology and life.

If anything it's physics that is a dying discipline, with less and less funding, while more and more money is directed at noano-science and materials science, in other words mostly chemistry.

eric scerri

JimmyGiro said...

Far from it Eric,

Physics is nicely vague, dealing with the universal truths, and avoiding the sticky smelly details of reality; even the saintly Carnot engine lacks a sump.

But you are right regarding the death of physics. My old Alma Matre got rid of its physics department, and bought a shiny new 'Envirnmental Sciences' block to house all the unemployed physics lecturers.

The political 'sciences' are better at whoring money from radical governments. Chemistry survives because it became a madam whilst the going was still good.

As the 'central science', chemistry gets about a bit, like all good time schools; but it risks becoming the camp-bike, it which nobody wants to own it, but everybody gets a certificate of advancement.

Eventually the new disciplines will win their own funding and departmental independence, and drop the old hag they 'practiced' on when making their way in the brothel of modern science.

Philip Ball said...

Cyclepath (and Eric),
The helix can be made to look nice, and it certainly has a logic to it, but I don't feel it tells me anything about the elements that I didn't know from the familiar old table. Besides, we're more accustomed to top-bottom left-right navigation (we'll surely continue to talk about "the bottom of the table", for example, and compass directions are handy for Peter Atkins' Periodic Kingdom analogy).

I'm very hesitant to take issue with you, of all people. But glad you've joined the debate. I don't see any harm in toying with the form of the PT, but I struggle to feel any real benefits, beyond amusement. The PT is a mixture of regularity and contingency. I rather enjoy the latter in chemistry (despite having become a physicist!). I can't help feeling that a lot of the attempts at redesigning the PT are straining to elevate the regularities and deny or hide the contingencies. Even the spiral can't hide the lacunae caused by d and f shells and so forth, which of course is pretty much impossible in two dimensions. I enjoy the uniqueness of the elements more than their family relationships...
Your comment about helium seems to me to rather prove the point. These distinctions and categories are human decisions about where to put boundaries - they're not irrelevant, but they don't seem terribly fundamental either. What matters, surely, is how helium behaves as a chemical element. Helium does not care where we put it, and will not alter its behaviour one jot as a consequence. (Does Pluto care that it's no longer a planet?)
If Sam's book is boosting the popularity of chemistry, I'm delighted and wish it well. It's just not really my kinda book, but then I'm not really the target audience.

Jim - you're as trustworthy as ever for coming up with a lurid analogy.
But I find plenty of beauty in chemistry - just not of the Platonic variety. I find the Swiss paper on graphene nanoribbons in this week's Nature (466, 470) strikingly beautiful, for example. But yes, messy too!
By the way, physicists are secretly fearful of chemistry.

Eric Scerri said...

Dear Philip,

Thanks for your response and nice to finally "meet" you so to speak. I have long admired your writings on chemistry including your early book on molecules and your Very Short Introduction to the Elements. Incidentally, I have just completed writing one myself, you guessed it, a VSI to the Periodic Table.

Now to your comment. I think that worrying about which groups elements belong to can lead to new science. I see a parallel to the work in the 19th century with pair reversals. I and Te were in the wrong groups. It was not until Moseley's work that this issue could be resolved. Primarly classification or ordering of the elements became based on Z rather than atomic weight. We currently have a situation whereby secondary classification (placement into groups) cannot be carried out unambiguosuly. The use of electronic configuration does not settle the issue in every case. Consider the He case that I mentioned. I have suggested the use of atomic number triads in articles in American Scientist and J. Chem. Ed.

You mention that He does not care which group we place it in which is of course correct. In doing so you assume that He is quite definitely a member of the noble gases. The people who defend the left-step table would disagree and some have even argued that we cannot go by apparent chemical 'properties'. I told a similar story in my book on the PT but have since changed my mind. He should remain in group 18 whereas H should be moved to the halogens (group 17) in my view.

Just like in biological classification it is important to use an essential criterion (DNA) rather than appearances in the animal.

all the best
eric scerri

JimmyGiro said...

"By the way, physicists are secretly fearful of chemistry."

Nah... I always pack a condom.

Though a chemist did break my elbow in five-a-side footy... the @#!$&#@!% git!

As for helium, it shows it main personality at near zero temperatures, physics all the way. Plus, at these temperatures, the isotopes are as chalk and cheese. Where is you PT then?

Cyclepath said...

You say a helix or spiral doesn't tell you anything you didn't know from a table. I think it tells you two things: 1) that the sequence of elements is an uninterrupted series, best not chopped up into blocks; 2) that there is besuty in chemistry. Tables are four-square and boring; curved forms are what we see in nature and what our eyes evolved to appreciate.

I find the chemists v. physicists arguments trivial - rather like the demarcation disputes between trade unions. The behaviour of helium is a case in point: it behaves like a noble gas because of the peculiarity that there are no p orbitals in the K shell - a matter of physics. What is more mysterious is that, from argon onwards, a full p sub-shell makes a noble gas when there are vacant d orbitals - and later f orbitals etc. I have finally come round to the idea of putting helium with the alkaline-earth elements; I think Henry Bent has the right justification in his generalization of Bill Jensen's idea of trends in the periodic system.

JimmyGiro said...

So, which end of the hard-boiled egg do you open, Cyclepath?

Unknown said...

Philip Ball said; "The helix can be made to look nice, and it certainly has a logic to it, but I don't feel it tells me anything about the elements that I didn't know from the familiar old table."

Hi Philip.

I hope you can take a look at, and see if all these kinships can be found on the flattened periodic table. offers a starting point for examination and criticism of a 3-D periodic table for new students (not to replace familiar tables) as well.

Unknown said...

Wrong destination for the kinships page, which is

Eric Scerri said...

Thanks Roy,

I think it might help if you were to add links or just a section in which you describe what these kinships consist of in chemical terms.

I am not aware of the tertiary kinship that you feature on your image.

What about possible H - halogen kinship which as you know I support on the basis of a new atomic number triad H (1), F (9), Cl (17)?

Meanwhile He is already part of an atomic number triad He (2), Ne(10), Ar(18) and so should not be moved to the alkaline earths.

all the best
eric scerri

Eric Scerri said...

Dear Cyclepath,

You counter Philip Ball by saying,
I think [a helix] tells you two things: 1) that the sequence of elements is an uninterrupted series, best not chopped up into blocks; 2) that there is beauty in chemistry. Tables are four-square and boring; curved forms are what we see in nature and what our eyes evolved to appreciate.

I think I am with Philip Ball on this.
Neither of your points represent new science. They concern either pedagogical emphasis, your (1) or aesthetics your (2).

And on your claim re-physics v chemistry.
You state that Bent's support for the placement of He in the alkaline earths is based on Jensen. Does it not strike you as a little odd that Jensen himself is completely against the notion of acknowledging a primary kinship between He and the alkaline earth elements?

best and see you next week in Oxford.

Philip Ball said...

I sense you've proved my point. From the first time I encountered the PT, I cannot recall a time when I failed to grasp that the elements run continuously from the right end back to the left. We don't need a spiral to teach us this. It is pleasing to illustrate it directly, perhaps, but I think it is a poor deal to trade subjective aesthetics (which clearly not everyone shares) for the long-standing traditional navigational axes that chemists use around the PT. Besides, it is not at all clear that we have evolved to make more sense of curves than of straight lines. Everyone comprehends a vertical, or for that matter a horizontal. A group is much more easily eyeballed when one element sits atop another than when we have to follow a curving trajectory across another curving trajectory. This is not to dismiss the spiral PT out of hand - it has its virtues, but I can't see any real gain in pedagogical value.
I'm inclined to say the same about these 3D paper models (which I'd seen before). To my mind, they make the PT's awkward bulges all the more unsightly. What's more, they are more or less impossible to eyeball: you have to hold them in your hand and turn them around to make sense of them. And again, they seem to make heavy weather of what is really not such a hard concept to grasp in 2D anyway, which is that, for example, the lanthanides and actinides have to be considered "inserts". Where's the genuinely new understanding of the elements?

Philip Ball said...

Our comments crossed, so it's nice to see they converged!

Cyclepath said...

Sad that chemists don't see the value of beauty. Explains why so many people are put off chemistry!

And no, Eric, I didn't say that Jensen accepts Janet's placing of He. Henry Bent justified Janet on the basis of an extension of Jensen's notion of trends across the periodic system.

Finally, why do people keep talking about the Periodic Table? There have been hundreds of periodic tables. The current IUPAC periodic table is one of the worse ones (an f-block 15 elements wide?! They must be joking!).

Philip Ball said...

I really don't want to blow my horn, but I hope you'd see in my book Elegant Solutions that I do see the value of beauty in chemistry. I just find it elsewhere. I guess that's how it is with beauty.

Eric Scerri said...

Yes the odd thing about IUPAC is that they refuse to take a position on placement of elements within groups. There is no official line for example on what should constitute group 3 (in their numbering system). There was an articles by Jeffrey Leigh in a recent issue of Chemistry International where he stated this explicitly and said that all that they legislate about are numbering of groups and discovery/naming of elements.

Their definition of "element" also leaves a lot to be desired.

Eric Scerri

Cyclepath said...

@ Philip. The point about presenting the periodic system in a beautiful form is that an image of it is practically the first thing you see in chemistry. If an angular and lop-sided table switches people off how are they going to get beyond it to the other elegant and beautiful things?

@ Eric. Henry Bent explains tertiary relationships.

Eric Scerri said...

Sam Kean's blog about posions like thallium which appears today is rather eerie I must say!

Eric Scerri
UCLA, Chemistry & Biochemistry Dept.

Chris R. Brown said...

Sam Kean's "The Disappearing Spoon" is a contribution to popular science literature, but it has one huge drawback. It was not edited or proof-read by people with experience and background in the subject areas covered. Unfortunately, it is shot through with errors. Let me cite a few examples. When talking about vacuum tubes, the author says that engineers hated them because they overheated. This is not the case. Engineers loved them. They could rectify, amplify, clip, be built into AGC circuits, you name it. Yes, they ran hot, but they were built that way, and the engineers of the time took pains to design with that in mind. Have a look at any '50s or '60s radio or TV, and you'll see how it was done. This is a young person, talking about engineering in a time when he was not
around. But the Editors should have caught it. Worse, a bit later the author talks about the spectrum of hydrogen, saying that there is a yellowish-green line in the hydrogen spectrum. Sorry, no. This is a factual matter. And the author studied physics? Where are the editors? In addition, there is a related gaff about looking at the spectra of heated substances that reveal spectral lines. Ever look at the spectrum of a candle flame? There are no spectral lines. The spectrum is continuous, because the flame is incandescent. To see the spectrum of the substances involved, the heated gas must be rarified. This is not nit-picking. This is some really basic stuff, and a lot of people are going to read this book. The agony is that these credibility gaffs are so easily caught and fixed. A lot of kids are going to read this book and get excited. That is good, but these same kids are going to be badly misinformed. The tone of this book is like Bill Bryson on steroids (Bill's publishers also do not carefully screen his science stuff) and the book can be expected to have a wide readership. That's nice, but one must ask if our highly technical society is well served by a book sprinkled with misunderstandings and inaccuracies. Come on, book publishers, if you are going to publish about science topics, get some competent science editors on your staff. Oh, there are none? Why am I not surprised?