Book Simple: Better than Fiction Non-Fiction
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
When I was little, I thought my Dad knew everything about the world. There was never a single question I could think to ask that he didn’t have the answer for, from why the sky is blue to how the human eye functions to why the sound of a siren would change as the fire truck passed our house. Later, he could tell me about how a car’s clutch works, about global warming and acid rain. To some extent, this might explain why I chose to study a social science rather than a hard science; I never felt the need to solve life’s physical mysteries because Dad has always been able to explain them to me. There are very few people that I’ve met with as comprehensive and curious a mind as my father’s, though considering how particularly I have been blessed with science teachers, you’d think I’d have retained more of their knowledge.
Two weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the Museum of Natural History on a visit to Manhattan. My friend and I were rushing through the minerals collection as the museum was closing when I was transfixed by the sight of a huge chunk of sulfur, gleaming yellow in its case. Looking down, I saw an excerpt from the periodic table, which I dimly recalled from a chemistry class in high school. The course was taught by a wonderful woman who made the structure of atoms come alive, convincing thirty teenagers to dance in circles pretending to be electrons.
In the minerals room, it was exasperating in a particular way not to know more: how the crystals were formed, why they were shaped as they were, what the composition could do. I’m often struck by what a useless adult I’ve become when compared with the ones I grew up admiring. So it felt like fate when the next week I heard an All Things Considered story about The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Non-fiction is not my preferred scene, but this is the rare story that is better than your average novel.
The book is an eclectic history of the periodic table, beginning with a description of its physical shape, which is compared to a Libeskind building, and continuing through the digressive story of that building’s construction. As he moves through his scientific descriptions, Kean amusingly anthropomorphizes the elements themselves: “Helium, element two, has exactly the number of electrons it needs to fill its only level. This ‘closed’ configuration gives helium tremendous independence, because it doesn’t need to interact with other atoms or share or steal electrons to feel satisfied. Helium has found its erotic complement in itself.”
The embattled history of the elements starts at the creation of the universe, which “was once a primordial slurry of hydrogen, with a smattering of helium and lithium. Eventually, hydrogen clumped together into stars, and the extreme gravitational pressure inside stars began fusing hydrogen into helium, a process that fires every star in the sky.” Through the deaths of those ancient stars explodes forth all the elements listed on that simple table that Mendeleev wrote.
The story of the elements brings the reader through world wars and to the hanging gardens of Babylon. It makes you feel almost like a chemist, someone who could construct the practical joke of the title, referring to a chemical trait of gallium, element 31. “Though solid at moderate room temperature, gallium melts at 84 [degree] F … [and] since gallium molds easily and looks like aluminium, [a popular trick] is to fashion gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch as your guests recoil when their Earl Grey ‘eats’ their utensils.”
It’s such a fun read – for those of us who wish we knew more about science, and, I’d imagine, for those who already know quite a lot. I can hardly wait to share it with my Dad.
[The friend I visited the museum with, a polymath in his own right, would want me to note that my knowledge of the animal kingdom is even scanter than my knowledge of chemistry. In my mind, the beasts of the land are categorized into groups of “furry,” “cow-like” and “bird,” and the subtle differences between gazelle and antelope were rather lost on me. Perhaps for my next read, I should pick up a copy of the children's reference book, First Animal Encyclopedia.]