Every now and then you run across a book that makes you say "Wow!" I just read one such tome – The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. This little scamp is jam-packed with interesting nuggets of knowledge and tidbits of trivia about the periodic table and the elements it represents.
Actually, the full title of this little rascal is "The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements" (Phew!)
Truth to tell, my recent readings have tended more toward physics rather than chemistry, but I have to say that this book opened my eyes and taught me a plethora of things I either never knew before or that I had forgotten (as the years go by, this latter alternative seems more and more likely).
As one simple example, I was well aware that atoms like to have their outermost electron shell filled with electrons; also that the first shell can hold two electrons, the second eight, the third eight again, and so forth (don’t shout at me, I'm simplifying things for the purposes of brevity). I was also aware of the concept of a simple covalent bond in which two atoms each share one of their outer-shell electrons with each other (if you see what I mean) – like two hydrogen atoms (2H) each with a single electron forming a hydrogen molecule (H2) by passing their electrons back and forth so quickly that they both appear to have two electrons in their first electron shell.
I had, however, forgotten about ionic bonds, in which one atom that is an electron short of filling its outermost shell grabs an electron from another atom that has only a single electron in its outermost shell (again I'm presenting only the simplest case here). The result is two ions – one positively charged; the other negatively charged – that stick closely together, which explains why combinations like NaCl (sodium chloride; i.e. common table salt) are so common.
And then there was stuff I'd never heard about, like a super-acid with a pH of –31 that was discovered in the 1970s. As the author says:
This superacid is 100,000 billion, billion, billion, billion times more potent than stomach acid and will eat through glass as ruthlessly as water through paper.
Suddenly, that scene from the original Alien movie where the Alien's saliva burns through the deck of the spaceship doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched. But how would one store such a beast (the acid, not the alien)? Sorry, you'll have to read the book (grin).
But wait, there's more. I used to think that as atoms got bigger and more and more electrons were added, their "outermost" electrons would be the most on display and most available for reactions with other elements. But it seems that the transition metals squirrel some of these electrons away and "hide" them beneath other layers, which leads to counterintuitive chemical reactions to say the least.
Or how about so-called "magic nuclei"? This one took me totally by surprise – I'd never heard anything about this before. It seems that a lady physicist called Maria Goeppart who was born in Germany in 1906 demonstrated that the protons and neutrons forming the nuclei of atoms also sit in energy shells just like electrons, and that filling these shells leads to stability, thereby explaining why some atoms are more stable than others (I can’t believe that no one told me about this at school or college).
And have you heard that currently we are aware of about 14 or 15 different types of ice (you know, the stuff made out of cold water). It seems that different forms of ice can be created using different temperatures and pressures. In the book, the author talks about one type called Ice X
that comes into being at a very high pressure and that won't melt until around 3,700ºF. Of course my first thought was that it would be really cool (pun intended) to create some of this ice and then put it in the kitchen freezer ... imagine your friends' reactions (again, pun intended) when the ice in their drinks refused to melt. But then I thought, "hang on a moment, this doesn’t sound right", so I contacted the author, Sam, to ask him about this, and he replied:
Hi Max, your suspicion is correct: You'd have to keep Ice X under really, really high pressures, up to thousands of times atmospheric pressure, or it will turn into regular old ice and start to melt. So, sadly, no playing around with this in our kitchens (unless you've got a much more sophisticated kitchen than me!).
Any there's still more ... for example, have you heard about "superatoms"? These are clusters (between 8 and 100 atoms of one element) that have the amazing ability to mimic single atoms of different elements. As Sam says in his book:
For instance, thirteen aluminium atoms grouped together in the right way do a killer bromine: the two entities are indistinguishable in chemical reactions. This happens despite the cluster being thirteen times larger than a single bromine atom and despite aluminium being nothing like the lacrimatory poison-gas staple. Other combinations of aluminium can mimic noble gases, semiconductors, bone material like calcium, or elements from pretty much any other region of the periodic table. The clusters work like this...
Come on, you know you can’t wait to read more (grin). All of this totally furthers my personal believe that we are heading into a new "Age of Materials Science" that is going to revolutionize life as we know it.
And I've only touched on the surface of the book here – everything I've mentioned above comprises only a few pages of this 400-page beauty. Suffice it to say that this book is certainly going to take its place amongst the pride of my collection, and I have no doubt that I will be consulting it many, many times in the future.