Blogging the Periodic Table

Wild, weird, wonderful stories about the elements that make up our universe.
Each one has a story.
July 6 2010 7:08 AM

Blogging the Periodic Table

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I'm blogging about the periodic table this month in conjunction with my new book, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements. Now, I know not everyone has fond memories of the periodic table, but it got to me early—thanks to one element, mercury. I used to break those old-fashioned mercury thermometers all the time as a kid (accidentally, I swear), and I was always fascinated to see the little balls of liquid metal rolling around on the floor. My mother used to sweep them up with a toothpick, and we kept a jar with a pecan-size glob of all the mercury from all the broken thermometers on a knickknack shelf in our house.

But what really reinforced my love of mercury—and got me interested in the periodic table as a whole—was learning about all the places that mercury popped up in history. Lewis and Clark hauled 600 mercury-laced laxative tablets with them when they explored the interior of America—historians have tracked down some places where they stayed based on deposits in the soil. The so-called mad hatters (like the one in Alice in Wonderland) went crazy because of the mercury in the vats in which they cleaned fur pelts.

Mercury made me see how many different areas of life the periodic table intersects with, and I wrote The Disappearing Spoon because I realized that you can say the same about every single element on the table. There are hidden tales about familiar elements like gold, carbon, and lead and even obscure elements like tellurium and molybdenum have wonderful, often wild back stories. My book is a compendium of those stories, organized into sections about science, history, the arts, and every other area of modern life.

You might wonder: If I'm giving the milk away for free here on Slate, why buy the cow? Well, I'm not giving the milk away, or at least not much of it. I'll be covering only 25 or so elements here—the periodic table has (as of April) 118. This blog will contain mostly new material and will also cover newsier topics than the book does. So while the blog gives you a taste of the money, petty politics, quackery, sex, war, and, yes, science in The Disappearing Spoon, it's only a taste. (If you'd like, you can see the table of contents and a sample chapter here.)

Starting today, I'll be posting on a different element each weekday (the blog will run through early August), starting with the racy history of an element we've known about for hundreds of years, antimony, and ending on an element we've only just discovered, the provisionally named ununseptium. I'll be covering many topics—explaining how the table works, relaying stories both funny and tragic, and analyzing current events through the lens of the table and its elements. Above all, I hope to convey the unexpected joys of the most diverse and colorful tool in all of science.

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Sam Kean is the best-selling author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb. His new book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, comes out May 6.

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