GUY RAZ, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
In 1910, a young Hungarian scientist named George de Hevesy arrived in England to study radioactivity. A few months in, he started getting homesick, and actually the food at his boarding house in Manchester was really making him sick. Hevesy suspected that the cafeteria was recycling leftovers. So being the clever scientist he was, he did an experiment.
Mr. SAM KEAN (Author, "The Disappearing Spoon"): He took too much meat at dinner one night. And when the landlady's back was turned, sprinkled hot lead over it. She gathered his leftovers as normal. And the next day, Hevesy brought home a newfangled radiation detector from his lab buddy, Hans Geiger. Sure enough, when he waved it over that night's goulash, Geiger's counter went furious: Click, click, click, click, click.
RAZ: Now lead is a main group element on the periodic table, and this story is one of hundreds told in a new book about the periodic table. It's called "The Disappearing Spoon." And the voice you just heard is its author, Sam Kean, who joins me in the studio.
Mr. KEAN: Hi. Nice to be here.
RAZ: So no one needs a description of the periodic table, right? It's sort of as iconic as an Eames chair or the Chrysler Building. Everybody can picture what it looks like. The scourge of high school students the world over. Maybe not for you. And you say you can actually write history through the prism of that table.
Mr. KEAN: Yes. One thing I really wanted to get across in the book is that there are so many different facets of history you can find in the periodic table. You can look at war on the periodic table. You can look at literature and art. Obviously, you can get into science history, but then you get into a lot of the personalities of the people behind it, some very great scientists, and there's a few rogues running around in the periodic table too.
RAZ: Sam Kean, the title of your book, "The Disappearing Spoon," is actually about a spoon that did disappear in a cup of tea. How did that happen?
Mr. KEAN: It sort of a classic prank for scientists. The element we're talking about is gallium, which appears right below aluminum on the periodic table. Gallium has a sort of an unusual property. It melts at about 80 degrees, which means that when you have it at room temperature, it's solid, it looks just like something that's made out of aluminum. When it gets a little hotter than 80 degrees, though, it starts to melt. So even if you held a little plug of it in your hand, it would start to melt.
The prank is that scientists sometimes like to serve it with tea, and a guest has no idea it's anything but aluminum. When you pick it up and put in your tea, though, and pull it out, it looks like the tea has eaten the end of your utensil.
RAZ: You write about a man named Kenneth Parker, better known as the head of Parker pens.
Mr. KEAN: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: He made a fortune by consulting the periodic table. How did he do it?
Mr. KEAN: Parker had an idea for a pen he called the Parker 51, and it was going to be the greatest pen anyone had ever seen. The problem with it, in the first designs of it, was that the nib - the part of the pen that actually touches the paper - was too soft and it would deform when people were writing it, which is obviously a big problem with pens.
He first tried to make it out of an alloy called osmiridium. Unfortunately, osmium and iridium, the two elements involved, are rare and it was a headache to import. So he went to a different element called ruthenium. And ruthenium proved to be perfect. It was very durable, very hard. And it was pretty abundant. Not many people wanted to mine it either. So it was pretty cheap.
When that element, ruthenium, was added to the nib, it made it very hard. And after that, the sales of the Parker pens really took off. It became the best-selling pen in history, actually. And the generals that signed the treaties to end World War II actually were using Parker 51 pens.
RAZ: Parker pens.
Mr. KEAN: Yeah.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Sam Kean. He is the author of the new book "The Disappearing Spoon: Tales from the Periodic Table."
Sam Kean, there's a politician in Montana that you write about. His name is Stan Jones.
Mr. KEAN: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: He's a libertarian. He won 3 percent of the vote, actually, the last time he ran...
Mr. KEAN: Mm-hmmm.
RAZ: ...for U.S. Senate. And you write how the periodic table practically derailed his career in 2002. What happened?
Mr. KEAN: Well, Stan was a big believer that the Y2K virus was going to wipe out civilization. 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.
And he turned to a metal, silver, that actually does have some antibacterial effects. And there are stories of, for instance, pioneers going across the United States with silver coins in their milk jugs, because it prevented the milk from being spoiled. Unfortunately, Stan decided to take some pretty heavy doses of silver in water.
RAZ: Just drink it.
Mr. KEAN: Just drink the silver water. That has one unfortunate side effect: it makes your skin turn blue. So Stan ended up with blue skin while he was running for the Senate.
RAZ: And so - and is he still blue?
Mr. KEAN: He's still blue. It's a permanent effect. You can't get that out of your skin.
RAZ: But it doesn't kill you?
Mr. KEAN: It doesn't kill you. He's perfectly healthy. And I think he actually told a magazine once that if he had to go back, he would do it again. He said it's more important to be healthy than to be blue.
RAZ: All right. Godzilla - I got to ask you about Godzilla...
Mr. KEAN: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: ...because Godzilla was only killed when missiles were fired at him, missiles that were tipped with cadmium. I guess cadmium is like the deadliest element?
Mr. KEAN: It's not the deadliest. Traditionally, people say that thallium is the deadliest element. But cadmium is a very nasty element by itself.
RAZ: But why did they use cadmium?
Mr. KEAN: Because in the 1930s and '40s, while the Japanese military was ramping up, there was a mine in Central Japan that was mining zinc, which is related to cadmium on the periodic table, and they were dumping the leftover cadmium in the water.
The farmers that were downstream were absorbing cadmium through the rice that they ate because the rice sponged it right up from the soil. It caused an epidemic, a widespread disease they ended up calling itai-itai disease, which stands for ouch-ouch disease. 'Cause they didn't know what caused it, and that's what the victims would cry out. It left them with kidney failure and some of them had very soft bones. One doctor supposedly broke a girl's wrist just taking her pulse.
Down history, though, that became known as one of the big four pollution diseases in Japanese history. So when the producers of the Godzilla film in 1985 needed to kill Godzilla off, they capped their missiles with cadmium. It's sort of a notorious poison there.
RAZ: Just as you were wrapping up writing this book, there was some news: a new element was discovered, right?
Mr. KEAN: Mm-hmm, element 117, which fills in a gap on the bottom of the periodic table. It's called ununseptium, that's a Latin name for 117. And it took a lot of work to create that element. It can - for the elements on the bottom, it can sometimes take a decade or more of work just to create them. And what scientists usually end up with is six or so atoms of the element, and that's all they'd get.
So it takes a lot of effort even to confirm that they have these elements. Most of them disintegrate in milliseconds or sometimes even shorter periods. And there's also what some scientists think is a cap on the periodic table at about element 137 or so. And after that, no one is really sure if we can make heavier elements or not.
RAZ: That's Sam Kean. His new book is called "The Disappearing Spoon." It tells the history of science through the prism of the periodic table.
Sam Kean, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. KEAN: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.