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Yesterday's review. My wrists are officially On Notice as this is not behavior a person should have to tolerate.

This is a collection of cool stories about elements. Kean has gone through the periodic table and fished out a lot of interesting anecdotes about the discoveries, uses, appearances, names, practical joke possibilities, and so on of every element currently on the table (and some hypothesized but not, as yet, produced).

Unfortunately, and it pains me to have to say this about a work so intimately concerned with one of the great feats of human data arrangement, this book is not very well organized. He's going through column by column, except when he isn't, and the chapters are thematic, except that I guess each is also supposed to focus on the group of elements listed at its head, some of which do not seem very thematic and consequently turn up a lot in chapters that aren't the ones they're listed in. He has neglected to notice that in a book intended for a popular audience it might be a good idea to spell out the names of the less common elements in those chapter-head listings in addition to using their two-letter abbreviations, especially since they aren't spelled out in the reference periodic table at the back either. And, since this is thematic/by element/whatever this is, various scientists and historical events pop in and out in an extraordinarily arbitrary fashion. I am not saying this is a badly written book, but it needed a more precise deep structure, because currently it is much more confusing than it really ought to be. If you have not heard of a particular scientist, for example, you are going to spend a lot of time staring at names wondering whether that was the same guy who was mentioned in passing in chapter five or whether they are merely similar and what century we are even discussing.

That said, these are some pretty awesome anecdotes. The title is referring to a lab practical joke, in which one casts teaspoons out of gallium, which melts at 84F and looks, you know, metallic, so then one hands around the spoons and watches them dissolve in everyone's tea. The book is full of little tidbits like the reason that the Washington Monument is topped with aluminum-- before the modern refining process, it was markedly more precious than gold. That sort of thing.

However, the book also suffers from what I would call a confusion of emphasis. I am, for instance, the sort of person who would like to know what happens if anyone accidentally drinks any of the gallium tea (is it toxic or what?), and who thought this up in the first place, and so on, in-text rather than with a source referred to in the notes (to be fair, the notes are thorough). Something of a lack of follow-through there.

And the coolest thing in the entire book gets about two and a half pages, a seriously kick-ass essay about the weirdest battle in WWI, which took place in a molybdenum mine in Colorado before the U.S. entered the war. The Germans had discovered that the extremely large guns which fired shells for miles would last longer if their steel was alloyed with molybdenum, a substance considered generally worthless before this discovery. The largest available supply of molybdenum had been refined by the Colorado mine's owner, using a process he invented himself, because he felt like it and was vaguely convinced he could find a use for it someday.

The principal thing I have to say about what happened next is: where's my action movie? Claim jumpers! People being thrown off cliffs into snowdrifts and surviving by sheer luck! A German company renaming itself American Steel for purposes of chicanery! Hand-to-hand fighting in mines, ignored by the law because the law thought the substance being fought over was basically a rock! Rock smuggling of unprecedented proportions!

Did I mention this was like two pages? If I had been intending to write a book, and I came across this material, I would have written a book about this. Instead, this book contains rather more than I consider necessary of the usual things about how Mendeleev was a genius bastard and Rutherford was basically God and also the Manhattan Project, which are stories I have encountered repeatedly elsewhere whereas I do not every day see WWI molybdenum claim-jumpers.

So I cannot disrecommend this book, because there is a lot of cool stuff in it, it is competent on a sentence level and within each anecdote, it is well-sourced, and it is mostly entertaining despite the confusions. It's just frustrating, and it could have been a great deal more than it turned out to be.




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March 2017

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