In his debut, Science magazine reporter Kean uses the periodic table as a springboard for an idiosyncratic romp through the history of science.
Ranking Dmitri Mendeleev’s creation of the first version of the periodic table (“one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind”) alongside achievements by Darwin and Einstein, the author extends the metaphor of a geographical map to explain how the location of each element reveals its role—hydrogen and chlorine in the formation of an acid, carbon as the building block of proteins, etc.—and how gaps in the table allowed for future discoveries of new elements. Kean presents the history of science beginning with Plato, who used the Greek word for element for the first time in the belief that elements are fundamental and unchanging. The author then looks at Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for her discovery that the radioactivity of uranium was nuclear rather than chemical. Kean suggests that nuclear science not only led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, but was instrumental in the development of computers. The women employed by the Manhattan Project, he writes, in “hand-crunching long tables of data…became known by the neologism ‘computers.’ ” The author is a great raconteur with plenty of stories to tell, including that of Fritz Haber, the chemist who developed nitrogen fertilizer and saved millions from starvation, and applied his talents in World War I to creating poison gas, despite the protests of his wife, who committed suicide. “Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom,” writes the author, “you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.” Nearly 150 years of wide-ranging science, in fact, and Kean makes it all interesting.
Entertaining and enlightening.