The Disappearing Spoon

Madness, Love, and the HIstory of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
by Sam Kean
ages: adult
First sentence: “As a child in teh early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth — food dentist’s tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever — and if no one else was around, I’d talk anyway.”
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Me and science aren’t exactly friends. (Or is it science and I? Bad grammar day.) I’ve taken a few science classes, and while I think I liked chemistry the best (who doesn’t like blowing things up in a beaker?), I really haven’t given science (or it’s application) much thought over the years. In fact, save visits to hands-on science museums (my favorite), I haven’t given it any thought.

Enter Sam Kean and this book. It’s perfect for people like me: those who kind of like science (especially chemistry) in a passing sort of way, but aren’t scientists by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a sweeping book, one that explains basic chemistry as well as looking at the history of how different elements were discovered, the periodic table was put together, and about the scientists behind both. All the famous people are there: Einstein, Pierre and Marie Curie, and… that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. But, he goes beyond the famous people, and delves into the all the stories. One I loved was how x-rays were discovered. Or about the kid who decided he needed to help the world break its oil addiction and built a nuclear reactor in his mother’s backyard. Or how elements influenced pen making. Or the politics of Nobel Prizes and naming elements. Or this throw-away line: “Still, chefs and chemists tended to distrust one another, chemists seeing cooks as undisciplined and unscientific, cooks seeing chemists as sterile killjoys.”

It’s got everything, and yet, it’s an incredibly balanced book. It’s amazingly accessible (a must), and even though I think I only understood maybe a third of what Kean was explaining, I found I was never bored. Kean knows how to talk science to unsciency people, so that even if we didn’t understand all the technicalities, we still can thoroughly enjoyed the book.

And that’s a feat unto itself.

4 thoughts on “The Disappearing Spoon

  1. When I first heard about this book I thought it sounded interesting but probably not something I'd be able to push through as a “novel”…more as a reference book.

    But the more and more I hear about it, the more intrigued I am to check it out. It sounds amazingly accessible for a curious science novice like myself.

    Thanks for a great review.


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