Sam Kean – The Disappearing Spoon
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; Microhistory/History of Science
Started: 07 March 2014
Finished: 14 April 2014
Chemistry is much
more interesting than it’s
made to seem in school.
Summary: The Disappearing Spoon is a history of the periodic table, and the elements it contains.
No, wait, come back!
This book is the history of chemistry, yes, but it is not technical at all, and is much more focused on the people involved, and how the realms of chemistry have intersected with the course of human history. The first part of the book (“Orientation: Column by Column, Row by Row”) is the most focused on the pure science, explaining what the periodic table is, what makes one element different from another, and how their structure determines not only where they are on the table, but also what properties they will have. But even here, there’s an emphasis on Mendeleev and the other scientists who figured these relationships out. From there, the book talks about different elements grouped more by their impact on civilization than their chemistry. There are chapters on nuclear fission and the history of the atomic bomb, on elements and medicine, on poisons, on money (including a possible chemical explanation for King Midas’s mythical golden touch), and finally some chapters on the current and future state of chemistry as it moves beyond the confines of the periodic table.
Review: I thought this book was great. It is admittedly right up my alley – I love this kind of microhistory, plus toss in the history of science, and a ton of great trivia, and I am a happy girl. And while I am a scientist, I am not a chemist – I’ve taken plenty of chemistry courses, but the most recent of them was… 13 years ago? – so I was thrilled by Kean’s straightforward explanations of how chemistry works, which is understandable to the layperson without sacrificing scientific accuracy (which is a devilishly tricky balance to achieve!)
“Oxygen, as element eight, has eight total electrons. Two belong to the lowest energy tier, which fills first. That leaves six left over in the outer level, so oxygen is always scouting for two additional electrons. Two electrons aren’t so hard to find, and aggressive oxygen can dictate its own terms and bully other atoms. But the same arithmetic shows that poor carbon, element six, has four electrons left over after filling its first shell, and therefore needs four more to make eight. That’s harder to do, and the upshot is that carbon has really low standards for forming bonds. It latches onto virtually anything.”
(And there you have at least the first two weeks of an organic chemistry class, in a nutshell.)
So: this book was remarkably readable and straightforward in presentation. But it was also readable in terms of its content: it contains tons of interesting information and fascinating stories, amenable to reading in short chunks, but also always easy to pick back up and read more. I loved learning about how our knowledge of chemistry came about, especially in the age before fancy lab equipment and high-powered computers. I loved learning about where the term “computers” came from in the first place. Lise Meitner’s story both fascinated me and made me sad (everyone always points to Rosalind Franklin as an example of women in science being passed over for Nobel Prizes, but Meitner is a much better example, since she was still alive at the time that work she contributed to received the award.) My mind was blown by some of the theoretical and cutting-edge physics and chemistry introduced in the latter chapters. (Like: why are mathematical constants constant? What if, somewhere in this universe – or another one – π was equal to 3.14158 instead of 3.14159? I can’t quite wrap my head around it, but it’s fun to try!) And I gleaned tons of tidbits to add to my store of trivia (for example, the process behind why you sometimes find a really old Hershey’s Kiss with that weird powdery brownish-grey stuff on it is the same process that may have doomed Scott’s expedition to the South Pole). And really, what more can I ask out of a book? 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Loved it. Highly recommended to anyone who likes microhistories, whether you’re a scientist or not. And if you’re not, please don’t be daunted by the chemistry; Kean handles it very clearly, and makes it relevant to the other far-flung bits of history.
Other Reviews: The Book Nest, A Little Bookish, S. Krishna’s Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness and oddles more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: As a child in the early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth – food, dentist’s tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever – and if no one else was around, I’d talk anyway.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 322: “Historically, that didn’t stop people from trying to decipher this scientific mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” – the mysterious handwriting on the wall that was witnessed at a banquet hosted by King Belshazzar, in the book of Daniel in the Bible (technically these words are names of currencies).
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