One of the great things about being in a book club is that you are often exposed to books you might otherwise never read. So when a good friend of mine who is also a chemist, recommended the adult version of The Disappearing Spoon for our book club, I figured this was an opportunity to brush up on the extremely little I remembered about chemistry.
Well, the adult version needed to be dumbed down for me. If you don’t know much about chemistry or physics, it feels like reading another language. Even at my reading level, with a master’s degree under my belt, I found myself rereading passages to fully grasp what Kean was saying. I needed something simpler.
Thankfully, there is also a Young Reader’s Edition. I originally thought it would be cool for my daughter to read that version and participate in our book club discussion. Well, she has what seems a million other books she is more interested in at the moment and I’m not going to give up on learning about the elements that easily. So I picked up the Young Readers edition, instead. Gotta start somewhere, right?
C is for Chemistry and also the grade I got in the class. I was more intersted in my social life back in 10th grade, so chemistry never caught on for me. But it’s never too late to learn something new and I want to encourage curiosity in my kids. Plus, I’m tired of my kids asking me science questions and always having to say “ask Papa.” The constant learner and feminist in me bristles each time I have to defer to my husband to teach them something.
In The Disappearing Spoon, Kean explains the history of the periodic table of elements, including sometimes mildly juicy dramas surrounding the discovery and naming of different elements. I say mildly juicy because these are scientists we are talking about, so it’s not exactly The Bachelor’s “most dramatic season ever”, if you know what I mean. Even still, there is often something eccentric or some fascinating story behind what we now consider some of humanity’s greatest minds. Competition (between people and countries), intrigue, egos, and of course discovery! Kean tells colorful stories about the various elements’ uses and history and ties them even to geopolitical issues we’ve seen in the recent past. It really did bring the elements alive for me.
Through applied chemistry, Kean illuminates the history and evolution of chemical warfare and the similarties between elements that neighbor each other on the table, like chlorine and bromine. He also ties this into other historically “dangerous discoveries” involving explosions throughout the centuries. One can’t bring up the elements, chemical warfare, and explosions without also acknowledging the spectre of nuclear warfare. We live and die by these elements, though the extent of which, is up to us.
Kean discusses the heavy metals and how they are used in current technology such as computers (germanium) and MRI machines (gadolinium). Metals called tantalum and niobium are “dense, heat-restistant and hold a charge well.” What’s that perfect for? Cell phones. So back in the 90’s when cell phone usage started taking off, you could imagine how the aforementioned elements might become highly sought after. What country had large quantities of this suddenly important and very profitable material? The Democratic Republic of Congo (aka Zaire, back then), with 60 percent of the world’s supply, in the form of coltan, a mineral created by tantalum and niobium mixing together. Keep in mind the war in Rwanda that was spreading into other parts of central Africa and the subsequent unsteady food supply, add in an easily mined mineral not requring much more than a shovel and you’ve got farmers choosing to make to make a lot more money mining than farming. People started hunting gorillas for meat, pushing them toward extinction.
With lots of money pouring into a country with no stable government, Kean explains that “a brutal form of capitalism took over,” describing it as anarchy. When cell phone makers realized what they were funding, they switched to buying tantalum and nobium from Australia. Kean attributes some of the “cooling down” of tensions to the end of mining there. He notes, finally, that over 5 million people have died in Congo since the mid-90s, “making it the biggest waste of life since World War II.”
If I’ve inspired you to explore the world of science a bit more, then I’ve got some places for you to start! If you have kids, I recommend the Wow in the World podcast via NPR. Kids and adults both love it. They cover topics most adults probably don’t know much about and do it in an interesting and goofy way. Perfect for family road trips.
We also love watching Kurtzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) videos. They are geared towards adults but kids can get something out of it too and their visuals are stunning. My daughter loves to watch them on her own. It’s OK To Be Smart by PBS is another channel for kids where my daughter says she is learning about quantum physics. She is 10. I think we adults have some catching up to do.
Where do you or your kids go to learn new and exciting things?
What’s something new you have discovered or enjoyed learning about lately? If you were to go back and retake a class you took in school, what would it be?