Review: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the ElementsThe Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Disappearing Spoon is a history of the periodic table of elements.

Some of you are going “ohhh goody!” and immediately adding it to your reading lists. (Let’s be friends!)

For everyone else, who perhaps needs a little convincing, let me tell you that you should most definitely read this book if any of the below apply:
* You work in some kind (any kind, really) of scientific research field
* You enjoy nonfiction history books
* Bill Nye the Science Guy is your hero
* You really enjoy being able to dish out random facts at parties
* You like science in a vague way but didn’t like all that memorization or math stuff

The Disappearing Spoon is a feat like no other. Sam Kean needs an award for his incredible dissolution of complex scientific ideas into information the smart but non-sciencey reader can absorb–things like packing oranges in crates as an analogy for the atomic structure of tin in its alpha and beta forms. It’s complex stuff, but he kept it both scientifically accurate AND interesting. I’ve known a number of researchers… lemme tell you, that is a feat.

And Kean really did his homework. In fact, you’re going to need two bookmarks to read this one. I struggled for about half of it before getting a second one; it makes a difference. You see, this book is heavily footnoted, and you really don’t want to miss out on the extra information. Sometimes it’s just a citation, but for the most part, it’s extra information that will make you say “WOW.” So get yourself a second bookmark to hold your place in the back, too.

Kean covers every element in the table (and yes, there’s a lot) so this book, while completely fascinating, is a bit of a slog at times. It’s challenging to maintain that thread, so for the busy reader, I’d recommend making this your before-bed book (or, more scandalously, your bathroom-time book), because you’re going to put it down a lot anyway. But you do want to complete it.

You’ll learn jaw-dropping facts like:
-the disappearing spoon is a real thing
-One Nobel Prize winner was referred to as “S.D. Mother” in the newspaper when she won
-Marie Curie was better known in her day for her impropriety and turbulent personal life than for her science
-some people drink silver as a health aid…with disastrous bright-blue results
-we really are all made of the same stuff as stars
-how, exactly, some of the deadly elements kill you
-one vest was worn by three Nobel Prize winners over the years
-the first “computers” were the women who worked on the Manhattan Project, running computations long-hand
-there are people who are absolutely obsessive about kilograms

You’ll get more science in this one book than you got in a year of high school education, but it will be freshly delivered on a gleaming plate of intrigue, personalities, and incredulity. It’s well worth your time to learn more than you ever thought possible.

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