Author Sam Kean tells stories behind the periodic table

“Science is best learned when presented in story form.”

Such is Sam Kean’s point of view on the explanation of scientific knowledge. The science writer gave a lecture, titled “The Disappearing Spoon,” to a crowd of about 100 in Gregg Hall last Thursday.

Kean, an author of two national best-selling books, The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb, focused his talk on the little-known back-stories of some of the elements on the periodic table. He began the lecture by tying his early interest in science to his mother’s mercury thermometer. Calling mercury the “most fascinating substance I’ve ever seen,” Kean explained how his curiosity while watching his mother clean up a broken thermometer turned into a full-fledged obsession with chemistry and the people behind the discoveries.

He delved into the story of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician who created tablets full of mercury as a way (he thought) to cure illness. Kean explained that the doctor gave Lewis and Clark over 600 of these tablets — known for their intense laxative effect — and that researchers can even determine some locations the explorers visited due to the high levels of mercury in the soil.

For Kean, these obscure tidbits of information are the most interesting ways to learn about science. He even noted that aluminum had the “classic narrative of a story,” following the element’s history from obscure beginnings as an unusable metal, its rising action to acclaim among royalty, its climax at the peak of manufacturing, and its eventual crash to relative worthlessness.

Kean read two excerpts from The Disappearing Spoon, one focusing on the political tensions surrounding the element molybdenum and the other on the work of scientist George de Hevesy. Kean said that he wanted his book to not only talk about the history of the elements, but to also talk about “some of the scientists with really big personalities.”

Kean utilized his story-telling skills throughout the lecture to interweave well-known historical events with the narratives of scientists such as Hevesy and James Seaborg. He gave an account of how Hevesy deceived Nazi soldiers looking for a colleague’s illegally exported Nobel Prize by melting the gold medal into an unassuming flask; the Germans never found it and the Nobel committee recast it afterward.

The students, professors, and other members of the Carnegie Mellon community in attendance were receptive to Kean’s humor and captivating presentation.

For some, his lecture spoke of the importance of effective and interesting communication of science.

“As a society we certainly would benefit from a more scientifically-educated and engaged citizenry, and books like this are a terrific mechanism towards that end,” Karen Stump, director of the department of chemistry’s undergraduate Studies and laboratories, said via email.

Kean’s “science history romp” exposes the faces behind the periodic table, which he calls “the most precious real estate in all of science.” It’s these stories, people, and ideas that make science so fascinating to him.

“We all know about the science of the periodic table... it’s fundamental. But the periodic table means more to that; it’s a story book, it’s a trove, with our passions stored within it,” he said.