546: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

by Gerard


546: Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 346 pp. ISBN 978-0-316-05164-4.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Science
  • 540: Chemistry and allied sciences
  • 546: Inorganic chemistry

The first review of 2013 is a nice treatise on the periodic table of elements. I’m going for a bit of a different tactic this year. All of my previous reviews tried to give you a sense of the book without giving too much away. What I ended up with were weird, quasi-impersonal assessments that left out the one of the main premises of this project: to show that a immensely broad reading diet can both expand one’s tastes and emphasize just how interconnected information can be. Hopefully, my posts will be a little more energetic this year. That said, on to today’s book!

Sam Kean’s Disappearing Spoon is a delightful romp around the periodic table. He shares how each element was discovered, its historical context, and just how strange the scientific world is. The good thing is that he doesn’t just go on a straightforward path with hydrogen first, then helium, then lithium, and so on until ununoctium (element 118). That would be incredibly boring and repetitive. Knowing that groups of elements have similar properties, each chapter deals with a clump of elements that share a theme.

The book does contain a few factual errors, but that shouldn’t distract you from the ton of scientific goodness contained therein. If you’re a fan of the works of Bill Bryson, then the herky-jerky anecdotes won’t wear you down. Be warned though, there’s a lot of science in here. But there’s also a lot of humanity. One of the best way to judge a society is to see how it treats its learned individuals. Are they marginalized or deified? Lauded or lambasted?

Probably one of the most telling anecdotes in the book occurs when George de Hevesy was called on to look after the Nobel Prizes of Max von Laue and James Franck after Germany invaded Denmark in World War II. Knowing that all valuables would immediately be seized by the Wehrmacht, de Hevesy dissolved their medals in aqua regia (otherwise known as nitro-hydrochloric acid) and kept it stored in a beaker at the Niels Bohr Institute. Luckily, no one noticed the beaker of liquid gold sitting on the shelf. After the war was over, the beaker was retrieved, the gold precipitated out of the solution, and the Nobel Society recast their medals from the original gold. It’s these intersections of science and history that made the book interesting.

I enjoyed this book a lot. At times it reads like a textbook, but it lulls you into reading more than you think you might in one sitting. If you’re a science enthusiast, then this is certainly one for your shelves.