Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Disappearing Spoon

Back when I was writing about Lavoisier, I mentioned that a casual reader may get more out of a history of the period rather than Lavoisier's actual writings.  Well, I found one that I can recommend.  It's called 'The Disappearing Spoon', by Sam Kean [Amazon link]. 
The book is a walk through the periodic tables.  Most (if not every) element gets a story and some of them are wildly entertaining.  Take for instance, the lengths that Neils Bohr went, to hide some golden Nobel prizes from the Nazis:
On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr's lab. He wrote later, "I suggested that we should bury the medal(s)," but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.
So Hevesy's thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and "I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue's and also James Franck's medals."
They put the dissolved remainder into some beakers and stashed them away.  The Nazis ransacked the labs but ignored the beakers.  Pretty clever, eh?  The best part though, after the war, they precipitated the gold out and had the medals recast.  That's wonderful!

As I'm going through the Great Books, I'm recognizing where my strengths and weaknesses are with different types of books.  The science and math readings (and the Kant!) are not going to be my friends.  After reading 'The Disappearing Spoon', I have a much better grasp on chemistry and the people who have done so much of the work over the past few centuries.
Highly recommended.   


  1. The Disappearing Spoon was one of my favourite reads. I especially liked the scientist who turned himself blue by ingesting too much silver (how much, is too much, huh? ;-) ). It's a great book!

    I think my weaknesses are the same as yours. I have Kant on my list but I haven't gone near him yet.

    1. I keep looking for some kind of popular book on Kant so that I can get a handle on him. I'll let you know if I find something.