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The Disappearing Spoon

Favorite One?

As we get to the end of the Disappearing Spoon the question is whether you had or now have a favorite element? The elements each with their own properties and the periodic table as a way of organizing them are perfect for collectors of whatever (stamps, coins, etc.).  I’m not sure I have a single favorite but I certainly have some I really like.

As an organic chemist, I really like carbon and all its versatility but its next door neighbor, nitrogen, has provided me with all the interest needed for me professionally. Nitrogen gas surrounds all the time here on earth and nitrogen participates in almost of all life’s processes. If you’ve bought eggs from Angela and I, you may or may not know that they come from Enno Farms (that is Enno as in NO as in nitric oxide). This nitrogen containing compound has been very good to us research wise and allowed us to pursue other types of life chemistry on a macro scale.

It’s hard not to like some of the common everyday metals like iron and I spent a good deal of time as a post-doctoral working on osmium compounds. The chemistry department’s intramural softball team is the isotopes and their jerseys sport different element symbols and atomic numbers.

Have you found a favorite element or elements (for whatever reason) reading the Disappearing Spoon?

The Elements

Chapters 4 and 5 both really made me think a lot about chemistry and chemical elements. Chapter 4 sort of gives the big picture of how elements form and how hydrogen and helium (the smallest two) are the most abundant in the universe, but that trend doesn’t follow and how astrophysics/chemistry dictate the chemistry we have here on Earth. Then chapter 5 gets right down to how people and civilizations use chemistry to their advantage and how different elements rise and fall in importance depending on economic and political pressures. The stories about the Colorado molybdenum mines and were pretty humorous (maybe a Mel Brooks movie is in there) but show how one element temporarily skews what society thinks is important (read the end of that chapter on the niobium and tantalum). I’ve always found the Fritz Haber story interesting. I guess reading the Disappearing Spoon has really made me aware of how important chemicals/chemistry is to modern economics in terms of energy, health, defense and agriculture and how those all become topics for political and international discussion.

One of my favorite scientists

I attended a lecture given by Roald Hoffman, Nobel  Laureate in Chemistry, last month at WFU. In his lecture, Dr. Hoffman displayed the beauty that exists in science and how science can intertwine with the arts.  He is not only a scientist but also a poet and playwright after having survived the Nazi occupation, which has been an inspiration to me.  Although I was a science major, I also studied modern dance, choreography, and music history in college.  Which scientist has inspired you?  Who is your favorite scientist?

First Experiments

Reading the Introduction of The Disappearing Spoon and the author’s childhood memories about mercury and thermometers made me think about my own experiences with science and chemistry as a child. I would spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s sink mixing various liquids (water, milk, pop, dishwashing liquid) with other things like ketchup and mustard and spices, all to be sealed in a bottle and sent to the basement to see what happens. I’m not sure that I ever looked back at those “experiements” but it was fun to mix them up and see what happened. I did have a chemistry set a little later but it wasn’t until college that I got more interested in science and chemistry again. Reading the introduction made me think about my first experiences with science and wondered what others first brushes with science or chemistry were like? -Professor Bruce King

New month, new read: ‘The Disappearing Spoon’

Sarah Jeong and Hu Womack, librarians at ZSR Library, are excited to be discussion leaders of the April DeacsRead alumni book club. This month, we will be reading the New York Times bestseller, The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean. If you’ve not yet picked up a copy of the book, we hope you will grab one and begin reading this week. Dr. Bruce King, WFU Professor of Chemistry, is a guest commentator who will kick off our discussion! We hope you will join us!

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