RARE – [Book Review]

Most elements on the periodic have found a significant use in our technologically advanced lives. Take printed circuit boards in modern electronics. Copper is typically used as the main conductive material to transmit current between microprocessors. These conductors are usualy isolated from one another through woven glass fibers, covalent bonds of silicon and oxygen. Additional compounds are added to the system to improve product reliability, including epoxies (Carbon/Hydrogen/Oxygen) and flame retardants (possibly Bromine, and/or Phosphorus-based materials). To improve chip adhesion , electrical connection, and rust-resistance to the printed circuit boards, PCBs are selectively lined with easily melt-able metals (tin , lead, and sometimes silver or gold). The chips themselves are made from pure silicon that are selectively doped with boron and phosphorus, while other chips are doped with gallium and arsenic. And the list can go on.

Most people know the listed elements in the paragraph above. But most don’t know the vast majority of the elements and their specific uses. This includes Beryllium’s use as a transparent X-ray window in Scanning Electron Microscopes testing, Scandium’s capability in improving metal strength-to-weight ratio, and Tellurium incorporated into re-writable CD/DVDs and high-efficiency solar cells. Typically the deeper one goes into the periodic table, the more obscure those elements are to the public.

Note: If you would like a really nice “Introduction to the Elements” book, I highly recommend THE ELEMENTS by Theodore Gray, which gives enough information to keep you intrigued while giving high-quality images of (most of) the elements in their natural form and their uses.

Note: Note: Unfortunately, I didn’t like Gray’s additional book “Molecules” as much. This may be more of an issue with the topic itself, and now how the book is written. The vast majority of compounds out there are either a transparent liquid/gas or a white solid . And there is no good substitution for a picture book besides a flame (the destruction of a combustible gas), a dead animal in a bottle (liquid preserve),  or just simple objects (gloves, string, asparagus, rocks). And there are lots of “ball-and-stick” models, which are not that exciting to look at. [Needless to say, I don’t know of a good alternative way to write such a book…. yet].

Anyway, back to the book in the title.

RARE, by Keith Veronese, focuses on the “Rare Earth Elements,” which doesn’t necessarily mean what’s hard to find (like radioactive Technetium), but focuses on two main categories. The first being the actual Rare Earth Elements (Lanthanum and higher). And the other part consists of Silver/Gold/Platinum (because those topics will help fill out and complete an entire book and still remain interesting to the general public). This work gives a decent overview of these metals, a bit of history on their discovery,  their applications, and how we obtain and trash/recycle them (which is messy!).

The book does tend to dabble into the politics behind these elements as well. And this can be a give-or-take topic, which didn’t feel well seamed into the book at some points. For example, there’s a chapter on “Afghanistan’s Path to Prosperity,” and it only talks about the war and terrorist groups, the sale of opium to find military costs, and doesn’t even get to metals till 3/4 into the chapter, where it describes how if the country wanted to utilize the riches of the soil, they “would require significant aid.”

The most prevalent example that did tie into the topic is China’s massive exploitation of cheap-but-rare elemental resources (including the Bayan Obo mining operation). With the country’s production so inexpensive, other countries including the US have essentially closed their mines for inability to compete. Now being the major (and sometimes only) source for specialty elements for high-tech motors and computation systems (iPhones anyone), they have major bartering powers over even the most non-related topics.

North Korea? The Senkaku Islands? Air pollution? These issues and many others that we can’t directly correct because we depend on China, as if it’s “too big to fail.” Boy does that sound too familiar….

Reading the book wasn’t as smooth as I was expecting, but there was never a time during my read that I needed to put the book down out of boredom and/or loss (like those string theory books. Yeah, I’m looking at you Brian Greene!). The variation by itself in a somewhat dull subject gives the work a bit of pull. At the same time, I felt like the book could have been renamed something more relevant to the books’ actual substance; as if the author wanted to write on a subject something more “big picture-ish.” Especially after the last chapter on “Who can mine Antarctica”, “Who owns the moon”, and similar questions.

Final words? I read it and I enjoyed it. It’s a topic that doesn’t get much attention, and that is a major plus on my end. Hopefully a review like this will help you decide if it is worth your time.

PS. I’m for spent nuclear fuel rod recycling, and this book gave me another reason why.


Freakanomics – [Book Review]

Freakanomics is ….. different. You go into it thinking about “freakanomics = freaky economics,” and you kind of get that. It’s more of a book of examples, which each one showing how one’s initial perceptions of causality are ….. not so truthful as one would think (or in many cases, hope).

The individual cases are quite isolated, but the authors [Levitt & Dubner] have been able to tie many loose ends into a free-flowing, smooth read. Even when there is no real conclusion to the book’s chapters.

Take chapter 4 for example: “Where have all the criminals have gone?” While the previous chapters have given enough foreshadow to paint the introduction on how “abortion rates are inversely proportional to crime rates,” this chapter explains the theory while almost contradicting itself later on. The audience adventures through the ideal, the reasoning through the correlation (how an unwanted child is a strong determinant to future behaviors), how to rule out alternative trends, and shows it through “data.” But then the chapter concludes how it may take roughly 100 abortions to prevent 1 murder….

Being written by economists, the authors are careful NOT to overwhelm the reader with too much “academic sludge” (though I think I could have lived without the ~15 pages of baby names in the last chapter). Additionally there are no academic equations or massive tables that may scare the average Joe away.

One major theme through the book really appealed to me when devouring the book. In many works of literature, authors will state a fact with a percentage value (20% more taxes / 5% in increased acceleration / 50 % off …. you get the drift). But percentages are significantly misleading, especially when you like to think BIG. If you don’t know the scale of the topic, the big picture is hard to truly imagine unless there are discreet values to nail down the expected change of range. And this is what this work articulates, and it does it very well.

For example, when Freakanomics talks about real estate agents, which gain 1-6% of the house’s value (in terms of sale bonus), the average person (including myself) would just assume that those in benefit would fight for the highest bid! But when that 1-6% difference is only a small margin $150 ( compared to their original winning of $10,000), they would rather sell TWO houses in the same time frame (and make $20,000) instead of fight for one house (for only $10,150). I don’t know what you would do…….but I’m totally for the two house setup, since I like being efficient.

Which brings us to the TRUE theme of Freakanomics. And that is……

Hmmm………give me a minute….

I would have to say it’s data. Data and how to approach it. We as humans constantly look at life with prejudice and assumptions. This is, unfortunately, really biased and thus obstructive when trying to figure out causation. One needs to approach a problem, gather as much data that best represents the environment you are analyzing, and crunch it without throwing in an “correctional factors.” And we are still realizing truths in our lives today through this method, because it’s hard to overcome these concrete thought processes that inhibit our mental progression.

And even when this process comes to a conclusion, taking another step back can drastically alter your newly found conclusions. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also unsettling. It makes the audience wonder what exactly “truth” is. But there is only one thing that we can do to ensure that we don’t completely lose ourselves.

Keep asking questions.



Note: It’s nice to think that that book’s stated correlations suggest that I would be a great parent. But even though I don’t have to take them to the museum for them to get good test scores,  I’m going to that anyways!