Monday, October 13, 2014

Nick Reetz

The Disappearing Spoon
Sam Kean
Back Bay Books, 2010
346 total pages, 185 read

"Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science" (8).

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean details the periodic table, and the stories, history, and science that comes with every element in the table. The first few chapters detail the table itself, how it came to be, the geography of it. Why certain elements are where they are, what that position means, and why the elements react the way they do. The first few chapters are much more technical, but are necessary for the whole book to make sense. The reader needs to understand the periodic table itself to understand the stories that come from it, and there are plenty of stories.

In the past, before humans realized the danger, pills of antimony or other elements were prescribed to people with diseases. These pills caused severe diarrhea and/or vomiting, and were supposed to clear the system of any disease. Little did the doctors and patients realize that the pills they were taking to cure themselves were actually killing them. Antimony, for example, is highly toxic, and it is likely that Mozart died from taking too much to combat a severe fever.

Another story involves war. Circa 400 B.C., Sparta, attempting to win a war against Athens, attempted to smoke out the city. They went about his by burning wood, thatch, and the element sulfur, known for its bad, rotten egg-like smell, around the outside of the city. This is the first documented case of chemical warfare, and it occurred about 2400 years ago. As this shows, we have slowly and steadily gained an understanding of all of the elements on the periodic table, which started before we even realized what elements are. We have learned so much about elements over the course of history, from how they react, to what they're made of, to how they're useful, and we still have plenty to learn. Sam Kean offers dozens of stories about elements, with many more untold, and many more still to come.

I think this book is fantastic. Kean does an amazing job of explaining the table, step by step, column by column; how elements react with each other and why, and what elements are made of, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. He does such a good job of explaining, even someone with no background of chemistry could understand and enjoy the book. I wish our chemistry teacher had taught us in a similar way. The stories are also very good. Each one is new and unique and distinct, and I enjoyed every one of them. Each story does a good job of adding to the overall theme of the book: the periodic table is more than just a list of elements; its a collection of stories and history. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially to anyone who loves chemistry and good stories.

1 comment:

  1. From your review this book sounds interesting even to a non-scientist like me! Bill Bryson's book At Home has a similar "storytelling" format, but it talks about everyday items in our homes--their histories, uses, etc.