Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Disappearing Spoon

For me, high school chemistry was all about bunsen burner hi-jinx and natural gas flame throwers.  I honestly cannot remember a single learning moment from Mrs. Brownstein's 10th grade chemistry class and a solid D on my high school transcript is reflective of that.  High school physics was even less appealing...theory without the fun of blowing up shit.  College chemistry followed suit and was only a means to an end.  Three semesters of physics on the other hand, although somewhat more enjoyable, had the unenviable position of being a Friday 8am class, an equal and opposite reaction to my Thursday night pre-weekend binge drinking.  My father, who received his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Birmingham a decade before I was born not only failed to pass along the affinity for chemistry but also any trace of academic acumen.  That being said, he was quite fond of pointing out that the pretzels I was eating were made with lye, the same stuff in drain cleaner, the bread I was eating was legally allowed to have 10 insect thoraxes per loaf, and the 7 different layers of plastic needed to make a 2L soda bottle (I think he still has the original prototype bottle in the crawlspace from the late 70s)...tidbits of trivia I pass along to my kids.

So why then, almost 20 years out of college, would you find a printout of the periodic table on my desk this week and an electronic version on my phone?  Last week I finished The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins.  Whether it be a mid-life crisis, a reaction to our cancer fight, or some other reason, I began to question my own beliefs.  Dawkins' book was one step in reaffirming them but it did leave a hole.  Among other things, it delves as deep as DNA, proteins, enzymes, and amino acids but stops short of explaining the genetic code, the transcription process, and why molecules behave the way they do at the atomic level.  Dawkins did a fantastic job expaining his assertions in all other areas of the book but I was, probably out of my sheer ignorance of basic chemistry, left wanting more.  With that, I went looking for a book on chemistry.

Needless to say, textbooks, acedemia and I don't gel too well.  I need some narrative and backstory with my facts.  I need it delivered in entertaining, sugary, bite-sized chunks.  I'm sure everyone can recall a certain teacher who made the process of learning a real joy.  Someone who didn't teach from a textbook but taught from their experiences and love of the subject.  Such is a book called "The Disappearing Spoon" by Sam Kean.  Fascinating stories of the atrocities of war-time gases, and the people behind them.  Petty personal rivalries.  The battle between silicon and germanium for our electronic hearts.  We all know about Marie Curie but none of us know about the 16 year kid who attempted to build a nuclear reactor in his garden shed.  Cadmium, thallium, and mercury poisonings, oh my!  Along the way, you learn about protons, neutrons, electrons, shells, valences, spin, isotopes, radioactive decay, and a whole lot more.  Information that, in high school or college, likely went in one ear and out the other.

I'm only halfway through the book but am thoroughly engaged and impressed.  I am a little closer to understanding nuclear medicine (there is no doubt we fret over its results every 3 months) and a little closer to understanding the cancer that has been a part of our life for 3 years.


Jude said...

Sweet! Anything that helps to understand this dis-ease is a good thing John.

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