Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Book review: The Disappearing Spoon

I confess: I spent all of senior chemistry sitting in the back row talking about Sex and the City and other important topics rather then learning about calcium and sodium and why you shouldn't play with a Bunsen burner. However, despite my concentration-issues, I still think science is incredibly interesting and a topic on which I would like to know more. Which is why I picked myself up a copy of The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The Disappearing Spoon is about the periodic table of the elements and the human passions and follies that lead to the discovery of the elements and the construction of this oh-so-familiar map of our world. 

Author Sam Kean spent years researching and collecting the stories behind the construction of the periodic table, from the discovery of elements by both great and almost unknown scientists, to the arrangement of the table – attributed first and foremost to Dmitri Mendeleev (never heard of him) – and the future of the table, those unknown potential elements that are slowly being 'discovered' as scientists find ways to manufacture elements.

This is a wonderfully engaging book. Kean has a wonderful humour and humanism in his writing. His pages are riddled with stories of betrayal, poisoning, jealousies and pettiness and above all, obsession. The single-minded obsession of generations of scientists to unlock out understanding of the very building blocks of our universe. 
In school we restricted ourselves to some 10 or 15 most obvious or common elements. The rest of the table was, to me at least, a nonsensical mess of initials like Cm, Sg and W (that’s curium, seaborgium and tungsten, by the way). The Disappearing Spoon opens up the table, exposing the noble gases, poisons and big-money-elements and is proof, if ever proof was needed, that history is genuinely fascinating, not matter how dull you might think the subject is. For instance, I didn’t know that the Japanese bombed Godzilla with Cadmium, or that the rare element ruthenium tipped the Parker 51 pen – commonly perceived by pen-connoisseurs as the-pen-of-pens – or that here is an element you can ingest that will permanently turn your skin blue. If my chem teacher had taught me that stuff I might have been less interested in discussing Carrie's latest failed relationship. 

The Disappearing Spoon is the perfect book for someone like myself, who has an interest in science and the human stories behind our chemical world but does not want to get bogged down in too much actual chemistry or physics. Once Kean starts talking about fundamental constants or measuring time in wavelengths my eyes glazed over a bit and I had to put the book down for a time when my mind was fresh and able to cope. Not that I’m not interested in learning, it’s just that the nature of physics and chemistry, the shells of atoms and so on does my head in. 

However, such lapses into eye-crossing science are rare. For the most part, Keane sticks to the stories of the scientists, their lives and their discoveries while imparting just enough science for comprehension and to broaden the mind a little. 

I suspect a genuine chemist or physicist would loathe this book for the simplifications that make it so readable for the rest of us. However, if you are at all interested in science I would heartily recommend The Disappearing Spoon. Not only is it an excellent read, it is an enjoyable way to learn a little more about the way our world works.

Marie Curie. Extraordinary scientist who was recognised for her contribution with the ultimate prize - an element named after her on the periodic table, curium (Cm, 96).


  1. How did I not know about this book?

    Interesting facts for you - W (tungsten) is what used to be in old style light bulbs, the super cheap ones you can't buy any more. The chemical that makes your skin blue is silver nitrate.

    Did they talk about Mendelleev's solitaire card game dream?

  2. This is a very you book, you'd love it. Plus, it would jazz up chemistry classes if you could just pull out some of these random facts. Get it out of the library!


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