Sam Kean, a physicist who graduated from the University of Minnesota, wrote The Disappearing Spoon a work of nonfiction that tackles and explains the mysteries of the periodic table, its history, its changes, its breakthroughs, and its contributions on mankind. Chapter 6 or Completing the Table… with a Bang deals with the revolutionary findings of the Manhattan Project, how the holes of the periodic table were filled and last but certainly not least, how the apocalypse may occur.
In the sixth chapter of The Disappearing Spoon Kean explains the basics of the works of Henry Moseley. Moseley was a student at the University of Manchester right before World War | broke out. Moseley had the ingenious idea to start studying elements by hitting them with an electron beam. At only 25 years old Moseley had figured out the problems chemists had been having for centuries, how to order the elements on the periodic table. Moseley’s electron beam test showed him how many protons were in each element giving each element a clear place to fall in line.
Moseley also used his work to find the holes in the periodic table and once these holes were established it led to the growth of scientists “element hunters”, people who would devote their studies into finding the gaps in the table. As World War II began to take action, the scientific community cared less and less on finding the holes in the periodic table. Countries were interested in finding if weapons could be made from subatomic sciences.
After the discovery of neutrons and when it was learned that when an atom has too many neutrons it explodes sending them to other neutrons, Leo Szilard dreamt of a chain reaction with these exploding atoms. This idea was the foundation of creating the atom bomb, the Manhattan Project in the United States. While scientists working on the Manhattan Project knew that nuclear fission (the splitting of atoms mentioned before) they did not know the variables that went into making a weapon viable. What speed, which angle were the questions of the time.
Without the resources to experiment and the science being too concerning to just theorize, a new method of practice was necessary. The wives of the scientists were put to work making calculations. These women were given numbers to plug into an equation so the scientists could get an idea of what would happen. So many sets of variables were computed that the scientists working on the bomb could predict what would happen if this or this variable was used. This method is known as the Monte Carlo method and is still used frequently today.
After the Atomic bomb was created new ones were made with the sole purpose to cause radiation damage. While the first bombs killed with heat, radiation bombs tarnished the area in which it was dropped for years and some even decades. It was found by Szilard, the man who came up with the chain reaction idea, that if even one tenth of an ounce of cobalt-60 was sprinkled in evera square mile across the earth and fission started, a mushroom cloud similar to the one that killed the dinosaurs would be created. The first potential “doomsday device” was now scientifically possible to make.
The overall theme of this chapter was to show the change from element hunting to the practical use of elements. We see the big change with World War II. This chapter shows how sciences change to what the world needs. This chapter also hints at the probable nuclear doom for our world. The organization of this chapter I believe to be quite great. Showing the change of interest in the field of chemistry changing drastically from finding the elements and figuring out how to use the elements was quite interesting. The clarity of this chapter I thought was also quite good.
I understood what Kean was trying to say throughout this chapter. Kean put things in terms that most people would understand, he compared something to Pac-Man, on pg 64, which made it seem less than just a textbook and more like a story experience. Another term he uses is “doomsday device” something any science-fiction loving person would know making the book fun. His word choice includes not only very intellectual words but also more colloquial terms making it very different from a textbook. This sixth chapter I found quite intriguing.
The chapter was very enjoyable and if I had the time I would get to reading the entire thing. This chapter answered questions I had. It had always been interesting how the scientists of the Manhattan Project actually found out how to create their atomic bomb. The start of the chapter, the background of discovering elements and then why that seemed very miniscule, was a fantastic way to lead into the heavy subject matter of these heavy elements and their fission. This chapter alone would be given an 8/10 for its subject matter and its organization of topics.
As good as this snippet into the book was I still would not recommend this to the average high school student. Without prior interest reading this book would be quite difficult in my opinion, there are lots of intellectual concepts and words in the chapter which can have me only imagine how many there must be throughout the entire book. While I can not see myself recommending this to the average Joe, this would be the first book I would recommend to a student with any interest in chemistry.