Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon
by Sam Kean

Published: Little Brown and Co.
Format: hardback
Copyright: 2010
Pages: 391
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: own book

From the cover flap "Why did Gandhi hate iodine (1, 53)? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missles made of cadmium (Cd, 48)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie's reputation? And why did tellurium (Te, 52) lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history ?

The periodic table is one of our crowning scientific achievements, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The fascinating tales in The Disappearing Spoon follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and every single element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

Why did little lithium (Li, 3) help cure poet Robert Lowell of his madness? And how did gallium (Ga, 31) become the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?* The Disappearing Spoon had the answers, fusing science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the big bang through the end of time.

*Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal with a unique property: it melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. So a classic prank for scientists is to fashion gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch as the guests recoil with the Earl Gray makes their utensil disappear."

Gallium melting in a warm hand. Picture from
This description from the cover gives you a very clear idea of what the book is about. The author takes interesting stories about the discoveries and discoverers of the elements and atomic properties and strings them together to create a human history of the periodic table. He arranged the book in a series of chapters that cover groups of elements with similar histories - for example Chapter 9 is called Poisoner's Corridor: "Ouch-Ouch" Cd, Tl, Bi, Th, Am (which stands for cadmium, thallium, bismuth, thorium, americium). This makes for a neat theme in each chapter, but it also means that you end up zig-zagging back and forth in time throughout the book. So while it starts out well, it gets kind of irritating when things that you read about in the earlier section of the book are events that actually came after the events you read about in the last section of the book. I think this is one of the things that slowed me down in the book. I just realized that the chapters read more like magazine articles - each is self-contained and works well as a standalone, but when you string it all together as a book it works less well. This makes sense because the author does actually write primarily for magazines and the like. 

I give the author high marks for telling some really fascinating stories and providing lots of cool tidbits of information that I wandered around reading at or reciting to various people. I just wish it had been organized better. Also the section on wartime development of chemical weapons and the like was really depressing and made me feel like I was losing my faith in humanity. It got better again once I got past that section of the book.

I also generally love the author's use of language - apotheosis, demotic, avant la lettre, susurrus - an expanded use of lots of lovely words that kept me on my toes and added to the feel of the text, i.e. a rich use of words rather than a gratuitous abuse of a thesaurus.

I do have to say that I was rather disappointed with the authors discussion of Pons' and Fleischmann's adventures with cold fusion though. Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science by A. K. Dewdney has a good history of cold fusion which has a rather different perspective and, as far as I can tell (from a non-physicist but earth scientist perspective), is a bit more accurate. It wasn't the factual stuff I was bothered by so much as the spin the author put on it.

This did make me wonder a bit about how accurate some of his gloss really is ... though the majority of the time, when it was an event I knew something about, the author's summary seemed reasonably accurate, so I don't really think that is a deep problem. However this leads me to one of the other 'down' sides of the book for me - it kept making me think about other books that I want to read - there is a book called Toxic Truth: A Scientist, a Doctor, and the Battle over Lead in my TBR pile that was called to mind as well as a couple of other books buried in there, plus now I want to add another book about the periodic table that the author talks about I want, and I want to read a biography of Roentgen, etc., etc. Plus it sort of makes me want to re-read The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, which is very cool even if it is way overly focused on forensic developments in New York at the expense of events in other places around the world.

Also, the periodic table at the back of the book is pretty useless; it doesn't include the names of the elements or cool stuff, just the chemical symbols, atomic numbers and weights.  I had to bring home one my tables from work so that I could look things up as I read. But that is a chemistry geeks complaint so I doubt it would bother most people.

Overall this was a pleasurable read - it floated between 3.5 and 4 for me but mostly I think it is a 4. If you like science history this book should be a fun read for you.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard such good things about this book and your review makes me want to read it even more. I love nonfiction which gets at the human story behind scientific discoveries :)


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