Guest Host: Brendan Greeley

What might Godzilla have in common with a high school student? Maybe they’re both afraid of cadmium — the element in the Periodic Table that helped kill the big beast. We explore the Periodic Table, and try to make sense of the elements found in nature. You’ll never think of metals, minerals, and gases, in the same way again.

Guests

  • Sam Kean Author, "The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements"

Tom Lehrer’s Chemistry Element Song

Scientists at the University of Nottingham attempt to turn a cheap Casio watch into gold:

Transcript

  • 12:06:42

    MR. BRENDAN GREELEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, it's sterile and intimidating, a Soviet blockhouse of a chart, 18 rows wide and seven deep. And yet we know it, any of us, if we were flashed in front of it for even a second. It is the Mona Lisa of science. It is the periodic table of elements, a kind of map of what we know so far about how the world works

  • 12:07:16

    MR. BRENDAN GREELEYBoron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fermium, neon -- you turn the corner, you'll end on sodium, magnesium. It reads like an incantation. And like any good spell, it calls on history and summons the names of the scientists who filled it out square by square. Sam Kean is in the studio. He is a science writer. He collects the stories of these scientists -- cranky, brilliant men and women --and with them, the story of the periodic table itself. Sam, welcome.

  • 12:07:40

    MR. SAM KEANHi. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:07:42

    GREELEYSo first, I want to tell everybody, what you should do right now is go to kojoshow.org and check out a copy of the periodic table. No doubt, you've seen it before. But if you have it in front of you, if you can print it out, it's going to help a lot to understand the show. I promise that we will make the science easy. I do not have a degree in any kind of hard science. Sam does, but he's a generous man. He's going to explain it to us. If you're driving, don't do this. But we'll work with you.

  • 12:08:11

    GREELEYSam, what came before the table? The periodic table is only the latest incarnation in an ageless attempt for humans to understand the world around them. So what was the first time when humans actually began thinking that there might be constituent elements that make up the world?

  • 12:08:32

    KEANHumans have been thinking that ever since the days of Plato back in ancient Athens, when they were trying to decide if the world was made of elements like air and fire and earth and quintessence and...

  • 12:08:48

    GREELEYQuintessence?

  • 12:08:48

    KEANThat was the fifth element...

  • 12:08:51

    GREELEYMm hmm.

  • 12:08:51

    KEAN...that Plato decided existed. It had to do with -- he was very enamored with geometry, and he had an elaborate theory about how geometry interacted with the small particles that make up the world. It's very elaborate and fun but turned out to be not so accurate.

  • 12:09:08

    GREELEYNot what we'd call rigorous.

  • 12:09:09

    KEANNo, not exactly. And then in -- right around 1800 or so, that's when scientists really started to figure out what the constituent, the fundamental building blocks of the universe are, the elements. They're things that can't be broken down into any smaller units. And scientists around the time had an inkling that there was probably a way to organize them. They just saw similarities among the elements, and they knew that they could group them into small sets. They call them triads 'cause they usually had three elements in them. And those were sort of the precursors to the periodic table because they all had similar properties.

  • 12:09:59

    KEANAnd if you looked at the way their weights were, they often notice that one would be exactly in between the others. And they thought it probably wasn't a coincidence that something like that was happening.

  • 12:10:11

    GREELEYAnd at the time, this is the 18th century, there was an almost occult obsession with the idea of a triad that it was too literary -- it was too beautiful to leave alone.

  • 12:10:21

    KEANThey definitely spiraled it off into a lot of things about the trinity in Christianity and other areas. It was definitely a time when they hadn't quite left sort of the more poetic and religious aspects that you see sometimes in alchemy or something.

  • 12:10:41

    GREELEYBut that's always been the case. Even up into the 20th century, the search for elements is also, in a way, the search for God.

  • 12:10:48

    KEANIn a way. You hear about today, they're looking for the God particle. That's what they're hoping to find with the big particle accelerators in Europe that are going on right now. And in a way, they do want to know, so to speak, the ingredients that God or whatever used to build the universe. And they -- the periodic table is really an attempt to take those building blocks and figure out what they were and how they were related to each other.

  • 12:11:15

    GREELEYIf you have a God particle of your own that you've been searching for or a favorite element, some people, believe it or not, do have one, please call us, 1-800-433-8850. We're also reading your tweets, @kojoshow. Sam, you have your own obsession with the periodic table that predates any scientific knowledge. What was your first element that you were aware of?

  • 12:11:40

    KEANThe first and favorite element for me was mercury. When I was a kid and about third grade, I had a rough go of things. I had -- came down with strep throat something like a dozen times and had to stay home from school each time with an old-fashioned mercury thermometer beneath my tongue. And I was a little clumsy with them. It's part of the reason I'm not a practicing scientist today. But I used to drop them over and over, and they would break on our hardwood floors.

  • 12:12:09

    GREELEYAre you trying to tell me that clumsy people become writers?

  • 12:12:12

    KEANClumsy people who have a, perhaps a strong interest in science may become writers, and so that was definitely the case with me. But anyway, I would drop them, and they would break on the floor. And I was fascinated by the mercury that would spill out. It was a liquid, but it wasn't like any liquid I'd ever seen before. It was shiny like a metal, and it didn't spread out over surfaces like most liquids do. It would stay in very tiny balls.

  • 12:12:41

    KEANAnd my mother was very good about it. She never panicked or evacuated the house or anything. She would get down on her hands and knees -- and with a toothpick -- and she would brush the little spheres together until we had a nice-sized glob of mercury. And we actually kept the mercury in a little pill jar on a knickknack shelf in our house. And as far as I know, it's still at my parents' house today. They redecorated a little.

  • 12:13:05

    GREELEYA kind of talisman.

  • 12:13:06

    KEANYeah, a little bit. Remind us of when you could buy mercury thermometers at the drugstore.

  • 12:13:11

    GREELEYAnd you're not the only one who's been obsessed with mercury. There's something beautiful about it and also certain physical effects on the body that have followed us through history.

  • 12:13:18

    KEANYeah, it's -- one of the reasons I really got into mercury after that then was it has appeared so often through history. It's one of the elements that they knew about a very long time ago, and it had a very strong tradition in alchemy and in medicine also. The idea back then in medicine in, like, the 1700s or so was to fight poison with poison, basically. And mercury, of course, if you ingest it, causes some pretty violent reactions in the body, and they thought that was good for a patient to sort of purge everything out of the body. I guess there's no delicate way to put it. It's just a very powerful laxative is the basic effect mercury has.

  • 12:14:01

    GREELEYAnd you can follow these purgings across 19th century America?

  • 12:14:04

    KEANYou can. There was a doctor in Philadelphia named Benjamin Rush who had a connection to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Dr. Rush had these patented pills -- he called them Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills -- and they were about four times the size of an aspirin. And he packed 600 of them with Lewis and Clark on their journey across the Louisiana territory in case they ate something that was poisonous or that was giving them a lot of problems. And historians and archeologists have actually been able to pinpoint a few places where Lewis and Clark must have stayed because the concentration of mercury in the soil there is much higher than it would normally be.

  • 12:14:48

    GREELEYSam Kean is with us. He's the author of the book "The Disappearing Spoon" about the periodic table. His favorite element, as we just heard, is mercury, which is also a powerful laxative. Nick in McLean, Va., what is your favorite element?

  • 12:15:05

    NICKWell, me, like most right-thinking people, have a favorite element called uranium.

  • 12:15:11

    GREELEYRight-thinking people love uranium. That sounds like a really dangerous statement.

  • 12:15:15

    NICKOh, I'm trying to put myself in a larger group for acceptance purposes. When I was about 8 years old, I got dragged off on a science trip to what, I believe, was the first nuclear power plant in New England at Haddam, Conn. And I can recall being on this tour with a school group being lectured heavily, almost as an adult, on the beauties and the wonders and the magic of uranium.

  • 12:15:44

    NICKAnd as an 8-year-old coming away from that, I thought, geez, you know, where's this stuff been in everybody's life? It's obviously the answer to everything in the universe, and we all know it in a much different way today. But, you know, with the current energy crisis and everything else, you know, uranium is going to obviously play some type of a role, and I'd be interested in hearing your guest's viewpoint on that.

  • 12:16:11

    GREELEYSam -- Nick, your favorite element is uranium. Do you have, like Sam, also a sample of uranium anywhere in your house like he has the mercury? We've lost Nick, hopefully not to a case of radiation poisoning, but his favorite element does lead us to a pretty significant chapter in the history of the periodic table, which is the search to exploit uranium.

  • 12:16:42

    KEANYeah, as Nick said, uranium probably will play more of a role in energy production in the future as society has to shift away from carbon, another element on the table, toward some different elements. And actually, uranium isn't the only option on the periodic table. A lot of people think lithium, for instance, could make very powerful batteries that we could use in cars or things.

  • 12:17:09

    KEANAnd a lot of the alternative energies, like solar and wind power, rely on some of the more obscure elements, especially the ones along the bottom row of the periodic table that have very specific uses in magnets or other things like that. So the periodic table probably will be very important for energy production in the near future.

  • 12:17:29

    GREELEYSo as we're moving down the Periodic table past uranium, it's probably right now a good time to get a sense of what this map, the periodic table, looks like, so if you did in fact, as requested, go and print this out, now would be a good time to haul it out. I'm looking at it in front of me. Sam has it in front of him. So help us understand what this map describes.

  • 12:17:51

    KEANIt's a way to organize the elements in a smart way. You could think about organizing them by color or abundance or any number of worse ways. What the periodic table does is takes elements that have similar properties, and it puts them in similar -- or, excuse me, it puts them in the same column. So for instance, if you look at the far right-hand side, you see helium, neon, argon. Those are what's known as the noble gases, and they all have similar properties. Same thing if you move over and see fluorine, chlorine, bromine, elements like that.

  • 12:18:23

    GREELEYWhy is it that we do -- that they have similar properties?

  • 12:18:27

    KEANIt has to do with the way the electrons are arranged inside the atoms. Electrons are the little tiny bits inside them that whirl around very quickly, and each atom basically exposes a certain number of electrons to the outside world. It has some it buries deep inside it and some it exposes, and based on how many are exposed and how many it can share with other atoms or how many -- or how well it can steal them from other atoms -- that is what determines how they interact and react with other elements on the table.

  • 12:19:03

    GREELEYAll of chemistry is some kind of a yearning to fill an empty shell.

  • 12:19:06

    KEANYeah, you're right. The -- what they really want to do is they want to get to a full set of them. For most elements, that's eight electrons. And so they'll beg, borrow and steal from other atoms to get those eight electrons. Some of them are very good at that. Like, oxygen and fluorine are very good at stealing electrons. Some, like sodium or potassium, are very good at giving electrons, which is why they -- those elements are very reactive sometimes to a dangerous point.

  • 12:19:37

    GREELEYSo the periodic table is essentially a series of columns of elements that are similarly fulfilled or unfulfilled.

  • 12:19:44

    KEANExactly.

  • 12:19:45

    GREELEYWe're going to talk about the ways in which elements fulfill each other. If you feel fulfilled by a particular element or if you're still completely befuddled by the periodic table, we can come back to this. We'll continue the conversation after a short break. You can join us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 12:21:51

    GREELEYWelcome back. I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Sam Kean about the periodic table. It vexes us but also explains our world to us. We have an email. If you have a favorite element, please email us at kojo@wamu.org. In the meantime, we have an email from Ron. His favorite element is hydrogen. In school, he learned that it has its own category. Does it, and is there anything special about hydrogen? I'm going to throw it to Sam 'cause he knows what he is talking about.

  • 12:22:22

    KEANThere is sort of a debate about where hydrogen should go on the periodic table. It's the first element, and so it kind of has properties of elements both on the far left-hand side and the far right-hand side, so sometimes chemists and scientists do move hydrogen around a little bit. One reason I really find hydrogen interesting is that if you look on a cosmic scale, 90 percent of all the particles in the universe are hydrogen atoms, and 10 percent of them are helium atoms. And if you're mathematically inclined, you might notice that adds up to 100 percent already. What that basically means is that the entire rest of the periodic table on a cosmic scale is a rounding error, including all of the planets, Earth, Venus, everything else. On a cosmic scale, it really doesn’t matter. There is that much hydrogen out there.

  • 12:23:17

    GREELEYI feel cosmically insignificant right now. I think for a certain generation, when you hear the word, the periodic table, you think of a song by Tom Lehrer where he simply lists them all. That's all that there is to the song. And can we hear that?

  • 12:23:58

    GREELEYIt's a kind of a spell in a way. It's an incantation. He's reading off all of these elements almost as if to summon something, and every single one of them, like any good spell, has its own history. So let's go back to the beginning of how the table itself was developed. We understand what it looks like now.

  • 12:24:15

    KEANMm-hmm.

  • 12:24:16

    GREELEYBut who's the person who really pulled it together?

  • 12:24:19

    KEANGenerally, historians give Demetri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, credit for developing the periodic table, but the actual history of it is a little more messy. There were five other scientists who came up with the idea of the periodic table independently. It was really an idea that was in the air at the time. Some of them had a bit of bad luck. There was one who decided that a good analogy would be to notes on the musical scale, and he drew up a little, you know, treble clef with the elements repeating on there. And it was a little whimsical idea, and it did not go over well with a lot of the scientists of the era.

  • 12:25:01

    KEANMendeleev is given credit because he did the most work with the periodic table. He sort of saw farther than other people what the consequences were, and he did things like fill in gaps on the table where there was no known element and even predicted the properties of new elements that had not been discovered yet based on where they fit on the periodic table.

  • 12:25:29

    GREELEYNow, this is bold. This is significant, that not only did he take the elements that were known and arranged them, but he actually was so arrogant as to suggest there were elements that we didn't yet know. And his structure was so divine that the elements would have to be discovered to fit it.

  • 12:25:46

    KEANYes. He sort of had this philosophical idea about how the world would work, and he sort of thought reality should conform to his vision. And what really attached his name to the periodic table was when a scientist discovered a new element -- not long after he published the periodic table -- and the scientist published a little bit about some of its properties. And Mendeleev came back and said, no, that can't be right. It doesn't conform to what I predicted. And the scientists said no, I discovered it. But it turns out this scientist was wrong, and Mendeleev was proved right. And it sort of astounded the scientific world that Mendeleev, who wasn't a laboratory scientist, had been able to see these properties more profoundly than the man who discovered the element itself.

  • 12:26:33

    GREELEYYou can email us at kojo@wamu.org. We have an email from Abigail. She writes, "My husband is a scientist. He isn't the most extroverted soul and also holds his own opinion in high regard. Therefore, I've come to refer to him as a noble gas, one of the few elements that doesn't readily react with others. I would also like to mention the awesome novel, "The Periodic Table," by Primo Levi with his experience as an Italian Jew during World War II as background, searching for reason and fighting chaos, as the table does." Thank you, Abigail. That was literary. I think it's interesting that she refers to her husband as a noble gas, but you deal with a lot of scientists in your book. And they're a strange breed themself.

  • 12:27:16

    KEANThey are a strange breed. There's one chapter in there where I talked about some proverbial mad scientist and some of the ways that the periodic table has tripped scientists up over the years. And that's one thing I really wanted to get across in the book, was the rich personalities that have gone into making the periodic table. And one of the reasons why is, it's something that appears in every chemistry classroom in the world. So if you discover an element, the stakes are pretty high. Your element, the thing that you picked, is going to be remembered forever. And that has caused some definite fights among scientists, who thought that they should deserve credit for elements that someone else had stolen, they thought.

  • 12:28:03

    GREELEYThe book is called "The Disappearing Spoon," by Sam Kean. Tell me about some of these fights. The table itself changes over time, so even something that we thought was nailed down in 1940 -- even some of the elements that we had discovered. In the meantime, they've had their names changed. So in many ways, it's not just a scientific question, but it ultimately becomes a political question.

  • 12:28:27

    KEANIt does. During the '40s through the next few decades, there was a team at the University of California, Berkeley, who was probably the greatest element making machine that the world has ever seen. The elements on the bottom of the table are not natural. They have to be created in a lab, and the Berkeley team was turning out element after element. They were the -- definitely the world leaders in here until the 1960s when a Soviet team started pumping out elements of their own. And at that point, they got into a pretty nasty fight about who had discovered which elements first.

  • 12:29:10

    KEANAnd the fight actually lasted for over 30 years. It lasted longer, it outlasted the Cold War itself. After Russia -- after the Soviet Union had fallen, these scientists were still fighting it out because of all the bad blood that had built up over the decades. And what they were basically fighting about was the chance to name the elements along the bottom of the table.

  • 12:29:31

    GREELEYAnd finding the elements got trickier as you went farther and farther down the table. We have a call from John in Palisades, D.C. John, what are your favorite elements?

  • 12:29:43

    JOHNElements that I feel a special relationship are (word?) and 118. When their discovery was first announced, I was in the eighth grade and we had our first chemistry course. And one of the projects was, we had to present on, you know, any element of our choice. And I chose these ones. They were mysterious. They were new. And I learned even how to read the published papers in Physical Review letter C even though they were -- when I started, way above my head. I went even to the interview, Victor Ninov, who was the principal investigator, claimed their discovery and talked to him over the phone -- and I just remember how -- I don't know whether he was uncomfortable just because I was a non-expert or because he was actually -- and we discovered later -- claiming these fraudulently.

  • 12:30:48

    JOHNHe -- there was an enormous scandal that erupted out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory just about eight months after I talked to him where it turned out he claimed to have detected some beta particles coming from beta particles of particles up from...

  • 12:31:09

    GREELEYJohn.

  • 12:31:09

    JOHN...from the elements which didn't exist.

  • 12:31:11

    GREELEYJohn, I'm going to interrupt you for a second. We're having some trouble with the line, but I want to repeat. Your favorite elements are 116 and 118. And there is some element of fraud attached to the discovery of those, which is not uncommon, given how important it is to discover new elements.

  • 12:31:27

    KEANYeah, I think, actually you might be referring to around element 112 or so. And you're exactly right. There was some fraud involved with the discovery of that. The problem is, when you're making the elements along the bottom of the table, you're getting just a few atoms of them at any one time. And it's very, very hard to detect that they exist. Really, the only proof you have is some data on a computer hard drive somewhere, and it really becomes a judgment call for these scientists to say if these elements exist. There are these ghostly particles.

  • 12:32:03

    KEANAnd Ninov, the Victor Ninov, the person you were in charge of allegedly -- he denies it to this day, but he allegedly -- he got into the data and started inserting false positives in there and claiming that he discovered elements that did not actually -- that he had not discovered, that did not exist in their experiment. And you're right. It was an enormous scandal, and he lost his job over it. And Berkeley had to retract the claims for that element.

  • 12:32:33

    GREELEYYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" at WAMU 88.5. I'm Brendan Greeley from the Economist, sitting in for Kojo. Once you get down to the end of the table, and as you say, the only proof of the existence of these elements is sort of as brief flashes of data on a hard drive, why keep going? Why continue to create elements that will only exist for a couple of seconds just to flesh out the bottom rows?

  • 12:33:02

    KEANIt has a lot to do, I think, with scientists, or even just basic people's love of adventure and exploring and trying to find as much as they possibly can. It's probable that the elements along the bottom won't have much use, but you never quite know. One thing I like to point out to people that if you go to the row with carbon in it, you can move down from carbon, which is the basis of life, to silicon, which is the basis of modern computers.

  • 12:33:34

    GREELEYIs everybody following along at home? Continue, Sam.

  • 12:33:37

    KEANThere's -- so you go from carbon to silicon. You can move down there a little bit to get to tin, which is obviously a very useful element in making cans and things. Below that, you find lead. So as you move down the periodic table, new and interesting properties emerge. And if scientists can create elements along the bottom that can last for a little bit longer, and some think that can do this, who knows what kind of interesting unusual properties they might have?

  • 12:34:06

    GREELEYAnd what element has the property that it disappears altogether when it's warm only just to room temperature? This is the element that comprises the spoon that disappears. Why does the spoon disappear?

  • 12:34:16

    KEANThe spoon disappears because of an element called gallium. And it sits right below aluminum on the periodic table. And so it has very similar properties to aluminum. It's -- if you saw a hunk of aluminum and a hunk of gallium sitting there, you probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart except gallium has one unusual property. It melts at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that even if you put a little bit in the palm of your hand, it will start to get soft and melt. And the disappearing spoon comes in because it's sort of a classic nerdy science prank to make a spoon out of gallium and to serve it to somebody with coffee or tea or another hot beverage. And the person getting the coffee, of course, thinks it's an aluminum spoon or something like that. But they figure out something unusual is going on pretty quickly when they take the spoon, put it in the tea or coffee and the head of it disappears on them.

  • 12:35:17

    GREELEYSo you wrote a book and then titled it after a nerdy science prank?

  • 12:35:21

    KEANAfter a nerdy science prank. I thought it got at what the book was really trying to do, which was to take the elements and even unusual elements that people probably didn't know about and really get at some of the fun stories that are out there but the -- you just don't get to talk about in a science classroom necessarily.

  • 12:35:38

    GREELEYSpeaking of nerdy scientists, I want you all to know, but you can't see this because he is in the studio, but Sam is actually doing this all from memory. He is not consulting a periodic table so far as I can see. In a -- we have on the phone, Johannes from Silver Spring. We have a question from the class. He wanted to understand a little bit more about the table itself. Sam is here for you.

  • 12:36:03

    JOHANNESHello?

  • 12:36:04

    GREELEYHello. Yes, please.

  • 12:36:05

    JOHANNESYeah, hi.

  • 12:36:07

    GREELEYJohannes, please...

  • 12:36:07

    JOHANNESHi.

  • 12:36:08

    GREELEY...tell us about -- you had a question about the table?

  • 12:36:11

    JOHANNESYes. I'm looking at the table right now, so...

  • 12:36:14

    GREELEYGreat.

  • 12:36:14

    JOHANNES...what do these -- what does this table really select? When you go from top to down or from left to right, what does it really tell to a layperson that it starts from -- with gas and it goes dense, it starts from -- what property do they really play into a layperson like myself?

  • 12:36:35

    KEANWell, if you start at the top of the periodic table and move down, the elements in any one column have very similar properties. So if you wanted to know how they might react with a different element, you can generally get a very good idea just by looking at the geography of the periodic table and where they are. Another thing that you can get just by looking at it is that three-quarters of the elements on the periodic table are metals, especially on the left-hand side. And the variety of the periodic table mostly comes from the right-hand side, especially near the top. That's where you get most of the gases and the non-metals that give the table some of its pizzazz and spice. So based on just looking at the periodic table, you can get a general idea of how the elements will react and also what kind of a substance you're dealing with.

  • 12:37:41

    GREELEYIf you've got a favorite substance or a question about the table itself, join us. You can call 1-800-433-8850. Ted in Rockville, Md. has a question about the table. Ted, you're on.

  • 12:37:54

    TEDHello. I have an observation from a granddaughter who is a sophomore in high school. And I guess six weeks of chemistry have visited with us and was taken to my den, which I haven't used much for the last, I guess, 10 or 15 years -- but in any event, there is a Mendeleevian chart that I've obtained from a bookstore in Moscow in 1976.

  • 12:38:25

    GREELEYWow.

  • 12:38:25

    TEDAnd my granddaughter -- there it is on the wall. Actually it's -- it was a photograph of the classroom-size chart. And, of course, I have Mendeleev's photograph in the upper right-hand -- well, as you look at it in the upper right-hand corner. And it was titled Mendeleev chart, of course, in the Soviet Union and still in Russia certainly. And my granddaughter was looking at details of it, and she said, oh look, the color code identifies the electron structures. I couldn't believe that this was a 15-year-old girl who now has had a total of six weeks of chemistry and whose teacher, throughout her lesson plan for that day when it was brought in, taught about the Mendeleev chart and then took it to her AP class -- the teacher took it to her AP class later that afternoon and throughout that lesson plan as well -- and they went through the Mendeleev chart. As a metallurgical engineer of material sciences, I was absolutely thrilled with both her excitement when she first saw it and when she identified what some of those colors really meant.

  • 12:39:58

    GREELEYTed, I'm amazed by your granddaughter, and I'm a little suspicious of you. I don't completely understand what it was that you were doing in 1976 talking to Russian scientists. I'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," WAMU 88.5. We'll continue our conversation with Sam Kean, author of "The Disappearing Spoon" in just a couple of minutes.

  • 12:42:10

    GREELEYWelcome back. I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Sam Kean, author of "The Disappearing Spoon," about the periodic table of elements. If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. We're taking questions about how the table works. We want to know about your favorite element or perhaps an element that you've had a disastrous encounter with. Joseph in Washington, D.C. has a favorite element.

  • 12:42:39

    JOSEPHHi.

  • 12:42:40

    GREELEYHi, Joseph.

  • 12:42:40

    JOSEPHAm I on the air?

  • 12:42:41

    GREELEYYou are on the air, Joseph.

  • 12:42:43

    JOSEPHMy favorite element is silicon because...

  • 12:42:47

    GREELEYWhy is that?

  • 12:42:50

    JOSEPHWell, it's in so many forms of the -- in the ground, on Earth. It's the second most common in the Earth's crust. It forms so many different types of rocks.

  • 12:43:07

    GREELEYJoseph, how old were you when you first encountered the periodic table?

  • 12:43:12

    JOSEPHI'm not really sure. I was probably six, seven.

  • 12:43:20

    GREELEYAnd how many years has it been?

  • 12:43:23

    JOSEPHOne or two.

  • 12:43:26

    GREELEYSo there are a lot of good stories about silicon. Sam, can you help Joseph out?

  • 12:43:31

    KEANHe's exactly right that silicon is the second most common element in the Earth's crust after oxygen. Silicon is one of the main components of sand, so it's a very cheap, inexpensive element. And actually, there's an interesting history behind how silicon became the element that we all know today from electronics. The transistor and the integrated circuit, which are sort of the basis of most modern electronics, were actually first invented with germanium, which is the element that sits right below silicon on the table. And silicon only later came in when they figured out how to purify it a little better. But if things had gone a little differently in history, we might be talking about Germanium Valley in California today because that was really the element that started the electronics revolution, germanium.

  • 12:44:29

    GREELEYJoseph, did Sam miss any uses for silicon?

  • 12:44:36

    JOSEPHOf all I know, no.

  • 12:44:39

    JOSEPHI think I did have a thought to be disastrous encounter with mercury.

  • 12:44:46

    GREELEYPlease tell us.

  • 12:44:47

    JOSEPHIt turns out it was just lead.

  • 12:44:50

    JOSEPHI was in school near the end of the day anyway, and then, in another classroom, a thermometer broke and then stuff came out what was -- what everyone thought was mercury. Then they called the fire department, and they said sorry. We just need to call the hazmat team. And then, just about when the school day was supposed to end, the hazmat team confirmed that it was just lead. You know, it's not that good to eat or something, but not as toxic as mercury.

  • 12:45:33

    GREELEYJoseph, your first encounter with the periodic table sounds very similar to Sam's first encounter with mercury coming out. It was, in his case, real mercury coming out of a broken thermometer. But we're still on silicon. We have an e-mail from Brian Poniatowski. He wants to know, "What is your take on a silicon-based, extraterrestrial life?"

  • 12:45:58

    KEANWell, this is something I do discuss in "The Disappearing Spoon." And it's an absolutely fascinating idea. The reason why people think there might be silicon-based life out there is because it's right below carbon on the table, and of course we're made largely of carbon and carbon products. Unfortunately, for those of us who really find the idea interesting, silicon-based life would be pretty difficult. And the problem is that silicon is a bigger atom, and so it's not as flexible as carbon in making ringed structures or some of the more useful molecules that carbon can. And silicon also forms solids more easily than carbon. So, for instance, we breathe carbon dioxide out, but a silicon-based life form wouldn't be able to probably breathe silicon dioxide out because that's sand. It would be tougher to do. So I -- you -- a good way to look like a fool is to say something is impossible. So I won't say it's impossible, but it would be pretty hard to have silicon-based life, as fun as it would be.

  • 12:47:11

    GREELEYYou can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850. Miles in Arlington had a disastrous encounter with the periodic table. Miles, you're on.

  • 12:47:23

    MILESHi. Well, disastrous may be too big of a word. It wasn't life-threatening or anything like that, but that...

  • 12:47:28

    KEANIt did not involve a hazmat team?

  • 12:47:30

    MILESNo, no hazmat team. And certainly my story is not nearly as horrible as his was, but the...

  • 12:47:35

    GREELEYNothing in this world is as adorable as Joseph is.

  • 12:47:37

    MILESYeah, well...

  • 12:47:38

    GREELEYAnyway, continue.

  • 12:47:39

    MILESSo my then soon-to-be fiancée and I were looking for -- looking at potential engagement rings, and we liked platinum but it was sort of out of our price range as a metal and didn't like white gold. And we are sort of trying to make up our minds which -- you know, go with the cheap gold or go with the platinum. And it occurred to me that -- I vaguely remembered from my chemistry in high school that elements in the same column have similar properties. And I thought, well, what's in the same column as platinum? And I looked at the periodic table and saw that palladium is right above it. And I started doing a little bit Googling and found that indeed you can get palladium jewelry.

  • 12:48:24

    MILESAnd so we talked to the jeweler that we've been working with, and she agreed to make us a ring in palladium. And it looked great except it turned out to be very, very brittle, which I had not expected. The periodic table did not give me a clue to that. And so after the ring shattered twice, we ended up going to white gold and found out later that palladium used for jewelry is not an alloy like we typically think of it but a powder that gets compressed. And I was very annoyed at the periodic table for not having that information handy, but...

  • 12:49:03

    GREELEYMiles, did you talk to any jewelers before you made this decision?

  • 12:49:08

    MILESYeah, we did. We had a jeweler that we worked with, and she said that she hadn't used it before but the person that she was going to have make the ring -- she wasn't the actual manufacturer of the ring -- he had said that he could make it out of palladium. And we thought that was, you know -- there was nothing in those conversations that sounded like a red flag. It turned out to be the sort of unknown property of the alloy, I think, that surprised everybody involved, that it just sort of shattered when we -- when it was under pressure.

  • 12:49:43

    GREELEYSam, there's been a tension throughout the history of the periodic table between the theorists who were in love with the beauty and the elegance of the table itself and wished to uncover its secrets, and sort of practical industrialists or cooks who actually deal with the day-to-day consequences of the table itself. Is that something that we're always going to be stuck with?

  • 12:50:06

    KEANIt's something that does come up today. It's -- along the bottom of the table, you can probably find more places where the two have to kind of combine interest because you're working with such small bits of matter. But on the table generally, yeah, there has been a lot of tension throughout history between the people who were very interested in the properties of the elements and the people who are very interested in producing theories about how they work. And one sort of famous case of this was with the element hafnium, which is sort of an obscure element. It sits right below zirconia -- zirconium on the periodic table, and I actually thought that last story was going to go into zircon. I was fearing when he said soon-to-be fiancée, I thought it was soon-to-be end of the engagement as well with cubic zirconium.

  • 12:51:04

    KEANBut anyway, hafnium is an element that was discovered in a sample of zirconium. And sort of the legend behind it was that Niels Bohr, a very famous scientist, had deduced on paper that you would be able to find hafnium in samples of zirconium, and so he sent his assistants out and they found it. But it got back to people in later years that Bohr had actually done a lot more research and had to rely on -- a lot more on chemists who were in the field and working on them. So there was, again, that tension between people in the field and people who wanted to -- or sort of captivated by the beauty and the theory of the periodic table.

  • 12:51:52

    GREELEYWe have an email from Brent. He writes, "Two of my favorite elements are virginium and alabamine, which don't exist. When I was in college, attending a lecture about scientific mistakes, I learned about how they were discovered through the magneto-optical effect and then undiscovered when they decided the effect does not exist. Years later, when I inherited my dad's handbook of chemistry and physics, I found them listed there." Brent also recommends the science fiction short story "Omnilingual" by H. Beam Piper, for those interested in the periodic table. But, Sam, the periodic table is a living document. There are elements that have appeared on it and then disappeared again. Can we talk about some of the elements that are now gone?

  • 12:52:34

    KEANSure. As he said, virginium and alabamine were two elements named after Virginia and Alabama. There was also -- I'm not sure how to pronounce it -- it was illinium, I think, which is named after Illinois, that also was later disproved. One of the more interesting elements in this case was technetium, element 43, which was discovered eight or nine different times by various scientists before they finally got a handle on what it was. And by discovered, I mean it was false discoveries, where people claimed they had it and were later disproved.

  • 12:53:10

    KEANSo that was probably the hardest element to track down. It was sort of the Loch Ness Monster of the periodic table. Everyone kept seeing it and discovering it, but no one actually was able to find proof of it for a very long time.

  • 12:53:23

    GREELEYWe've had a lot of emails asking about uranium and some of the elements towards the end of the table. But it seems like uranium has really been a driver of the table itself, that there was incredible period of discovery in 1930s, in 1940s that coincided not with some sort of remote intellectual curiosity but with some very real world needs to understand the table.

  • 12:53:47

    KEANYes. Uranium, the discovery came very close to the end of the 1930s. I think it was in 1939. They discovered that uranium atoms could split to uranium fission, and they split into smaller elements on the periodic table. And that was absolutely astounding for scientists. They never considered that idea before, both that a larger element could break down so far into smaller elements.

  • 12:54:14

    KEANAnd elements -- what really keeps them together is an incredible amount of energy. And scientists realize that when the uranium atoms were splitting, they must be liberating enormous amounts of energy. And even right beyond uranium, plutonium was an element that scientists really thought was going to remake the world in terms of how they produce energy. Everyone thought that energy would be too cheap to meter, was the phrase that they used, that we would have more energy than we knew what to do with. But, of course, things didn't quite work out that way.

  • 12:54:49

    GREELEYBut we got plenty of energy from splitting the atom.

  • 12:54:51

    KEANWe did. And of course, the Manhattan Project during World War II was largely focused on creating bombs from uranium and plutonium, and especially after that, scientists really focused on how to use those elements to create enormous and very deadly weapons.

  • 12:55:12

    GREELEYAnd the table itself, or at least the expansion of what we understand about the table, became a little anticlimactic after the Manhattan Project. There was all this urgency behind discovering the -- or figuring out how to use uranium to its best potential. And then after that, science moved on a little, didn't it?

  • 12:55:29

    KEANIt did. There was less interest in the elements on the main body of the table. There was actually, in 1940 or so, a few gaps left over, and scientists -- well, in previous generation, they had really fought and scrapped over who is going to discovery these elements. By the time they discovered these interesting properties of uranium, the table itself was neglected a little bit for both exploiting the properties and creating some of the elements along the bottom.

  • 12:56:06

    GREELEYGino in Washington is on the line. He wants to talk about some of the scientists who were involved in fleshing the table out.

  • 12:56:16

    GINOHi. You mentioned technetium. My grandfather was instrumental in the discovery of technetium -- the recognized discovery -- and he complains bitterly in his book about others who would try to discredit his discoveries and missing data and things that you've heard earlier on. So that's fun to hear.

  • 12:56:36

    GREELEYWell, who was your grandfather?

  • 12:56:36

    KEANYeah, what was his name?

  • 12:56:38

    GINOMy grandfather is Emilio Segre.

  • 12:56:40

    KEANOh, wow.

  • 12:56:41

    GREELEYOh, wow.

  • 12:56:41

    GINO(word?) So he was involved in a fair amount of discovery of elements. So of course, I'm enjoying this show. Anyway, I guess one of the things that I've always seen and sort of looked at is the egos in the naming, you know? You already mentioned the ones about relating to Alabama and Illinois and Virginia, and, of course, Berkeley in California and Einstein get some credit. But my grandfather's discovery, you know, he didn't name it after himself or his co-discoverers. He named it after -- basically, the first synthetic element, which is the root for technetium anyway. So I guess, you know, I'm curious to hear what other stories there are about ego and discovery.

  • 12:57:27

    GREELEYAnd, Gino, I'd love to hear more about your grandfather and actually ask Sam about him as well. And it does seem like the story of the periodic table was the story of egos thwarted and egos that got Nobel prizes. But for now, I'm just going to have to thank Sam Kean and tell everybody to read his book, "The Silver Spoon" or -- I'm sorry, "The Disappearing Spoon."

  • 12:57:48

    KEAN"The Disappearing Spoon." Yes.

  • 12:57:50

    GREELEY"The Disappearing Spoon." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Diane Vogel, Brenan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today is Toby Schreiner. Dorie Anisman is on the phones. Podcast of all shows, audio archives, CDs and transcripts by Softscribe are available at our website, kojoshow.org. Please join the conversation at Facebook, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Brendan Greeley sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.

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