Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"


Sam Kean wrote a book a couple years back called "The Disappearing Spoon And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements." I started it but never finished it. A commenter mentioned the book yesterday on Trooper York, and I suggested that we and another should read and discuss it and so I'm going to give that a shot. I'm going to take this very slowly at first in case you want to buy the book and follow along as well.

I read the Intro and Chapter 1 last night and flagged several passages that struck me as either very well expressed or perhaps worthy of further explanation.

Kean arranges his book into parts and chapters and each concerns a specific element or elements.

My style is to assume that the reader has the book and can proceed along with me on this journey. I'm going to drop quotes where I made markers and then write a few words.  If I don't say anything about a certain passage, it's not because I think it's good or bad or that I disagree. Feel free to ask questions or challenge me in the comments. This first post isn't very chemical at all and is mostly historical in nature. That changes pretty quickly.

Introduction: Mercury

Kean introduces mercury which he's known since childhood (as no doubt have many of a certain age before the stuff was so shunned).  Of course mercury was known to the ancients as well. Page 4, middle of page:
Medieval alchemists, despite their lust for gold, considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe.
Alchemists considered mercury to be the "spirit" of matter and sulfur to be its "soul." The arcane symbols used for the elements are here. In nature, mercury is commonly found combined with sulfur as the mineral cinnabar. The Romans mined the stuff in Spain and some of the mines are still producing it. I linked to photo of a man floating on a vat of mercury and wrote of some of my own experiences with mercury here and here.

Next we learn how Lewis and Clark left telltale signs along their trek because they carried with and used mercuric chloride as a laxative or emetic. Page 5, about 5 lines up from bottom:
With the weird food and questionable water they encountered in the wild, someone in their party was always queasy, and to this day, mercury deposits dot the soil many places were the gang dug a latrine, perhaps after one of Dr. Rush's "Thunderclappers" had worked a little too well.
This is fascinating. But it's no surprise because mercury persists in the environment. Ingested as insoluble mercuric chloride, it's likely to stay put as mercuric chloride.

Bottom of page 5:
I latched onto those tales, and recently, while reminiscing about mercury over breakfast, I realized that there's a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table. At the same time, the table is one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind. It's both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook, and I wrote this book to peel back all of the layers one by one, like the transparencies in an anatomy textbook that tell the same story at different depths.
I can relate. I began blogging about the chemical elements after watching 4th of July fireworks 4 years ago: link  I too realized that I had personal experience with many of them and I wanted to pull them together in my own way too. I started a series, using the tag "The Elements Series."  I intend to use some of these posts along the way. Eventually, I intend to extend the series beyond rhodium.
__________________________________
Next up: Part I   "Orientation: Column By Column, Row by Row"

1. Geography Is Destiny

21 comments:

  1. I was hooked on the book by the Mercury introduction. When I was a kid, growing up in the Santa Clara Valley, one of the really cool field trips we would take was to go to Almaden and visit the mercury mining operation. Quicksilver. It was the highlight of the field trip to take a big blob of mercury in your hand and smoosh it all around and try to break it up into little balls and recombine them. It was so fun! Try letting the kids do that today!!

    I had already known about the Mad Hatter and that mercury was a component of making beaver pelt top hats, but I had completely forgotten about Mercurochrome. That was a staple in our household since my brother and I were always getting scraped up.

    The manic panic about the least little bit of mercury is really out of proportion. Sure. We don't want to eat the stuff or breath the fumes and lose our wits, but the idea that we are all going to die if we have a glass thermometer in our homes is crazy. Lead is another that is getting a bad rap. People are nuts and California is probably the nuttiest State in the Union.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In college, one of the chemical demos they did was to pour liquid mercury into a mold in the shape of a hammer and and then cool it down to a solid using liquid nitrogen. Then they took a rubber nail also frozen in liquid nitrogen and used the mercury hammer to drive the rubber nail into a block of wood.

      Delete
  2. I bicycled around Almaden - didn't visit the mine, however.

    In sixth grade our teacher poured mercury into our hands so we could roll it around, feel the weight of it and so on.

    I'm perfectly fine. Fine, I tells ya!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I believe the Almaden mine gave the band "Quicksilver Messenger Service" its name.

      Delete
    2. It might have been Owsley Stanley who was responsible for that - one never knows...

      Delete
    3. Have another hit, Sixty...a sweet hit.

      Delete
  3. I believe I was wrong about the origins of QMS's name. Details are at the Wiki. But mercury was clearly involved so we're still on topic here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dental amalgams are another use for mercury and a constant source of controversy. Many older people do not realize that they are walking around with mouthfuls of mercury.

    Where is MamaM to explain all this to us? I believe that her father worked as a dentist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those new-fangled white fillings are the shit! Hey, I have a chem/anatomy post idea for you. I read something about an experimental matrix that can be put into bored-out cavities, into which new dentum(?) can grow.

      Delete
    2. I can't keep up, El Pollo! There's been so much going on in the Big Hippo Pond of Life, I'm having difficulty corralling my mercurial thoughts into containment. I did, however, manage to order the paper version w/2 day delivery, so I'll catch up soon.

      Delete
    3. Mama, hey, Mama, come lookin' for me,
      I'm here in the meadow by the red maple tree,
      Mama, hey, Mama, look sharp here I be.

      Delete
    4. Hey deborah! You continue to confound and delight. I hear your song and send back an answering whistle of cheer.

      Delete
    5. I've been there, since opening day, patiently waiting for intermission!

      Delete
  5. Can you believe the Kindle version of Disappearing Spoon is only $2.99? Looking forward to the book club :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll wait another day or so before people to get copies of the book before continuing.

      The words Almaden and amalgam appear to be unrelated although Almaden lent its name to both the mercury mine regions in Spain and in "New Spain" (California).

      Delete
    2. I can see how the 'al' part of the word could have Islamic/Moorish influences. al-Maden...

      Delete
    3. Good observation, deborah.

      Delete
  6. There's an antiquated chemical nomenclature rule governing words like mercuric and mercurous. It's the -ous vs. -ic suffix. We all know tons of adjectives ending in ous or ending in ic. In chemistry, the two suffixes distinguish degrees of oxidation. Without explaining what oxidation is, it mercuric is something more than mercurous.

    I tried to think of any example of a non chemistry example of this word usage but could not. For example a person who was a notch more abstemious would be termed "abstemic." Sadly, I could find or think of any real examples besides the chemical ones.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Althous and Althous-ick.

      Please disregard that spasm.

      I have gotten my Kindle working - meh, I don't have Wi-Fi here, but through great effort and much struggle, I have purchased the Spoon book and Taken for Amy Grant.

      Am caught up on the current assignment, Herr Ing. Docktor Professor - let 'er rip.

      Delete
  7. I'm really enjoying reading this on Kindle because I can make notes and highlight the things that I need to refer back to. I do wish that there were some illustrations or graphics to help my little mind be able to wrap itself around the proton and electron dynamics when elements combine and the various shells. I guess I need the Disney version :-)

    Sorry I skipped ahead a bit.

    ReplyDelete