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Review: The Disappearing Spoon

In The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean writes, “there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table”.

As Kean presents story after story it becomes clear that this is an understatement.  There are, in fact, several stories for each element and Kean seems determined to share them all.   Vanadium, for instance, makes an excellent spermicide, has been sold as a cure for diabetes, can be sprinkled on steel to increase its strength, and is used instead of iron in some animals’ blood which turns different species different colors — like apple green.   Beginning with mercury, a childhood favorite, Kean moves through the elements with an ease astounding to anyone who’s ever struggled with chemistry and, in doing so, adds another dimension to the periodic table.

While Kean clearly has a comprehensive scientific knowledge of chemistry, this project stems from something quite different.  He writes that as a physics major, the best thing about his education were stories, “stories about Gandhi and Godzilla and a eugenicist who used germanium to steal a Nobel Prize”. Embodying the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, these strange tales have inherent entertainment value due to their peculiarity, humor, and the audience’s sheer disbelief.  These short anecdotes are hard to get enough of, and thankfully, the Disappearing Spoon literally overflows with them; the Notes and Errata section is nearly another entire book in itself, and is well worth the page flipping whenever an asterisk appears.

Kean does run the risk, by putting so much information into the book, of overwhelming the reader with facts that seem thrown together and unconnected, but despite the wide range of stories, the book is compelling, easy to read, and fluent.  Kean manages to orient his readers in a world of chemistry that is often intimidating.  However, to do so he treads lightly in the hard sciences; the book provides cursory looks, never in depth examinations, of the chemistry behind the stories.  Some readers, particularly those with a stronger interest in or better knowledge of chemistry, may find this approach frustrating in its simplicity.

That said, this casual approach opens the intimidating and technical world of chemistry to people much less experienced with science.  Many aspects of today’s world center on science; education, for one, gears more and more towards technology every day; major policy issues often come down to scientific understanding.  For instance, debates about global warming are centered on science.  Yet, despite its incredible public importance, science retains a great deal of its past exclusivity, holdovers from its early days as an old boy’s club.  In the past, this exclusivity was often the result of social discrimination. Today, the complexity and technicality of science, as well as the vocabulary it is immersed in, present the biggest barriers to community involvement.   Popular science writing like The Disappearing Spoon, which steps back from this kind of complexity, invites a larger public into science by making it more approachable.

The terms on which it does so, however, can be perilous.  The biggest danger results from simplification which can confuse a scientific issue as easily as it can clarify.  Reader’s who accept a pop science summary of a scientific problem as the whole truth may place too much faith in their understanding of the issue.  This can confound intelligent discussion of science by introducing summaries that miss important details into the conversation.  These consequences can be mitigated by clearly indicating when a scientific description is simplistic.  Luckily, the dangers of simplification decreases for readers more familiar with the science.  For some readers — for instance, chemistry students with a tenuous grasp of qualitative chemistry — Kean’s ability to simplify it with well chosen analogies and anthropomorphisms makes The Disappearing Spoon an enlightening read.  For instance, Kean’s description of two tin allotropes, different solid phases of the metal, are stunningly clear; he compares their structures to stacking oranges in a box.  After relating this description he provides tales of historical misfortune surrounding this phase shift.  Readers will enjoy these stories and be surprised when, after reading a diversionary book, they understand, and even like, chemistry more than they did before.

It is this ability to covertly educate while obviously entertaining that makes The Disappearing Spoon stand out.   Many collections of scientific anecdotes simply bypass the science altogether, providing the reader with a few hours of light reading and handful of facts with which to impress her friends.  While Kean certainly does both of these things, he also introduces chemical concepts in a way that is accessible to even the least scientific reader.  His introduction hints at the depths of chemistry in a way that makes the entire field seem fascinating.  For the rare reader who needs no clarification of basic chemistry the book still is worth reading; even the most knowledgeable chemist is likely to find some fun, new tidbit in The Disappearing Spoon.  Like a story about element 31- gallium.  Solid gallium resembles tin, so scientists would fashion spoons out it and invite their friends to tea.  Unlike tin, however, gallium melts at the comparatively low temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit- a lower temperature than a hot cup of tea.  When the unsuspecting guests tried to stir sugar into the tea, the spoons melted and disappeared.  This is the spoon in Kean’s title.  That he chose to title his book after a practical joke reflects the playful attitude The Disappearing Spoon takes towards science — an attitude that is, remarkably, both educational and enjoyable.

References

  1. Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
  2. Image credit (Creative Commons): Cron, Martin. “Mad Science Invitation.” Flickr. 2008.

Felicity Deiss is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Biology and minoring in English and Creative Writing. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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