Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements is another one of those books I’ve seen reviewed all over the place, not to mention being featured along with host of other best-selling books in a recent iPhone/iBooks commercial. After hearing a pretty favorable review from a buddy of mine, I thought I might take a chance on Kean’s book, should I ever get the opportunity. Well, as luck would have it during an afternoon visit to the public library I happened to spot a copy of The Disappearing Spoon. With little reservation, I eagerly grabbed it. After finishing last week I’ve concluded that overall, it’s a pretty good book. While some of the more technical aspects of the book got a little hard to follow at times, overall I thought Kean’s book was pretty entertaining. I’m pleased to say it’s incredibly well-researched. It’s also surprisingly funny.
Published in 2010, Kean’s book is a kind of romp through the periodic table of the elements. From the universe’s most plentiful and simplest element hydrogen holding down the number one slot to the artificially created radioactive element copernicium inhabiting box 112, The Disappearing Spoon is the story of obsessed scientists, professional jealousies, failed scientific endeavors and as one would guess, stunning breakthroughs.
I thought Kean’s book made for fairly entertaining and intellectually stimulating reading, probably because the author, much like a scientist might mix two distinct elements into some laboratory solution, combined the tales of human drama enfolding both inside and outside the lab, (much of it can be described as “scientists who don’t play well with others”), with more scientific material such as how the known physical elements exist, react and were discovered in the first place.
Much like I did with Deborah Blum’s excellent book The Poisoner’s Handbook, I enjoyed how Kean was able to show science’s march of progress. As science and technology progressed, so did our ability to explore and understand the elements of our physical universe. After isolating and identifying rarer and rarer elements eventually scientists would soon be playing modern-day alchemists by using radioactive substances to create unstable and ephemeral elements previously nonexistent in the natural world. With our scientific knowledge expanding, as the boundaries between chemistry and physics would vanish, so would the boundaries separating the realms of the theoretical from the practical. But for all our advances, there would still be undiscovered elements, suspected by scientists to exist and longing to be found and cataloged.
Like I said at the onset, I generally liked this book. While some of Kean’s descriptions of the different reactions at the atomic and sub-atomic levels got a little confusing at times, I thought the book was pretty enjoyable to read. Combing humor, science and human drama, I thought Kean’s book contained the many elements one looks for in an entertaining book.