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Fun And Intrigue With The Periodic Table

Most people wouldn't describe the periodic table of elements as gripping. But Sam Kean makes it just that in his new book, The Disappearing Spoon.

The book tells the histories of the elements in the periodic table, and in the process, gives a history of famous thinkers, war, literature, protest and more. Kean spoke with NPR's Guy Raz about how he made the periodic table exciting.

Growing up, Kean says, the science teachers that captured his attention most were the ones who explained science through stories. He uses the same technique for his book.

In one story, a single element from the periodic table changed U.S. Senate candidate Stan Jones forever.

"Stan was a big believer that the Y2K virus was going to wipe out civilization," Kean says. "He was especially concerned that people wouldn't be able to find antibiotics. So he decided he was going to get his immune system ready for the apocalypse in 2000."

The Montana Libertarian began drinking liquid silver. He'd heard silver had antibacterial effects. It was so, Kean says, but there was a serious -- or hilarious -- side effect.

U.S. Senatorial candidate Stan Jones drank liquid silver to protect him from the "Y2K virus." It turned him blue.
John W. Liston / AP
U.S. Senatorial candidate Stan Jones drank liquid silver to protect him from the "Y2K virus." It turned him blue.

"Stan ended up with blue skin while he was running for the Senate," Kean says. It was permanent.

"He actually told a magazine once that if he had to go back, he'd do it again," Kean says. "He said it's more important to be healthy than to be blue."

More fascinating stories follow. One explains Mark Twain's strange fascination with the periodic table and the mythical devil made completely of radium in one of his short stories. Another describes why cadmium was used by the Japanese to kill Godzilla.

Even the book's title is an odd story. The disappearing spoon trick makes dinner parties fun for scientists: Gallium, shaped into a spoon, melts in a hot cup of tea.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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