Book: The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements
Author: Sam Kean
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Kindle Format (no pages)
The Periodic Table is something every student is familiar with. For most of us, we accept this castle-like chart of boxes of letters without much thought, but every element has its own story of discovery. The history of the table is in and of itself a collection of fascinating stories. Sam Kean wrote this largely anecdotal book about the Periodic Table in a way that most readers can understand and every reader can enjoy.
How do I start this review off? Well, I had a terrible 2011 reading year and I even thought myself a little crazy when I decided to start this book on (of all days) New Year’s Eve. It only took a few pages to have me hooked. The book starts off with the story of Dr. Rush’s Thunderclappers. What is this, you ask? Well, it is a laxative that some guy named Dr. Rush gave Lewis and Clark to take on their expedition across the land that has now become the United States (Who wouldn’t get a little irregular on a tough journey?). What the reader finds out is that these laxatives contained Mercury in them and that subsequent efforts to find Lewis and Clark’s trail across the unknown land included the finding of mercury deposits at their campsites. You might think it’s strange that I found that interesting, but I was hooked! Laxatives with mercury?!! I read on…
The book is filled with wonderful tales of discovery as well as pranks that scientists used to play on each other. The title of the book comes from a prank that involves the element, gallium. Scientists would make gallium spoons which has a low melting point and when they sat down with colleagues for tea, well….you can see what ensued:
Are you intrigued? Kean continuously provides interesting tidbits about the periodic table. Whether it is civil war in the Congo, or scientists that try to use beer for “bubble science” (he explains the Mentos and Diet Coke reaction along with some other more serious bubble science), the periodic table has driven a lot of human behavior that I never thought about before. The book is packaged in a pretty accessible way as well. I have never taken physics—EVER. Still, I wasn’t so lost while reading this book that I couldn’t finish it. In fact, I found it so accessible that I have spent some time talking to several people with physics degrees to understand some of the concepts even better. I also have spent a little time looking up some of the things that Kean mentioned in the book which has added to the enjoyment for me (I spent several hours on YouTube looking at weird chemistry experiments after finding the above gallium spoon video).
Overall, this book was a great way to start of the New Year. In fact, I liked it so much that I would even consider reading it again (which I rarely ever do with books). The book challenged me, made me laugh out loud (who wouldn’t laugh when an author explains molecules interacting with each other “like two obese animals trying to have sex”), and caused me to have some very interesting conversations with several people. I highly recommend the book for both science and non-sciencey types because it’s an incredibly fun way to experience what most people found to be incredibly boring in their high school chemistry class.
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