The Disappearing Spoon
Back Bay Books
"Maybe as we explain how to read the table on all its different levels, they'll whistle (or whatever) in read admiration- staggered at all we human being have managed to pack into our periodic table of the elements" (346).
Sam Kean marvels at the periodic table, and everything it stands for. He seems proud of it, what is inside of it, the elements in it, and that humans created it. He loves that it is simple and logical, and that each element has a story behind it. So he fantasizes what it will be like if aliens were to land on Earth. He assumes they are friendly, and interested in our science and technology. He hopes that they will marvel at our periodic table. He wants them to be impressed. Although his fantasies about aliens visiting is only a small part of the second half of this book.
Most of the second half of the book tells short stories about elements. Kean covers dozens of elements, from nitrogen, to titanium, to aluminum, with many elements in between. He starts off with a story about nitrogen and the deadly affects it can have on the human body. The human body actually detects that we are releasing carbon dioxide, not that we are breathing in oxygen. So if a person is in a pure nitrogen environment, they can suffocate and die very quickly, easily, and peacefully. This was the case with engineers for the Columbia space ship. They entered an engine compartment before the nitrogen could dissipate, and two of the five died. I find it amazing that with all of the research and practice NASA does, they still make a lot of mistakes, many which cost lives, such as this incident, or the Challenger rocket.
Kean does a great job of telling the stories that keep the book interesting, but also keeps it with the theme of the book. The theme for the beginning of this half was how elements can fool the body. I loved that he added that as a big part of the book, fusing biology with the chemistry of elements. Its a way to keep more people interested and help people to understand. Another example of that is a man who wanted to observe how bone marrow made new blood cells. He drilled holes in a rabbits' femurs, and placed a thin sheet of titanium that, under strong light, was transparent. However, unlike every other medal, the titanium actually fused with the bone. This led to advances in prosthetics, beyond the peg legs of the past. This shows how elements can be both helpful and hurtful to the human body. Many elements happen to be both helpful and hurtful, depending on the way they are used. Titanium many fuse to bone, but if a person gets hit in the head with a titanium rod, its not going to do them much good. Conversely, a pure nitrogen environment may starve the body of oxygen and cause death, but the human body needs nitrogen and the compounds it makes to function. When a person truly thinks about the periodic table, he'll realize just how amazing it is. When he goes beyond the basics and looks at everything the table shows, he'll be in awe.
Sam Kean does a great job of showing just how great the periodic table is. He gives some of the best examples, and when something must be explained, he does so in a way that allows someone with no scientific background to understand rather easily. The book overall is just a fun read. Every story is interesting and fits in well with the chapter. This book is a great read, and I would recommend it to anyone, especially to people who love science.