Review: The Disappearing Spoon

Sam Kean takes the Periodic Table as a loose guide for a series of stories about the unusual things we know about the elements and how we found them out.  There’s some promise that this is a book about the periodic table and its history, but that falls more and more by the wayside as the book goes on.  From a writing perspective the table is as much a McGuffin and an organizing principle.  How that affects your enjoyment is largely going to be a function of how much you wanted to know the table’s story.

Kean’s writing has two excellent features.  He can clearly and intuitively explain science and he can bring scientists to life.  His discussions of the discoveries that people have made are plain enough that one can follow them easily, but keeps enough of the complexity that the reader understands why they are discoveries.  That balance keeps the reader’s interest up without losing them in the details.  Secondly, he does a great job at making the scientists distinct and memorable with a few anecdotes.  Several times he reminds the reader of a person we haven’t talked about in a couple chapters with a pithy summary of the person’s character that brings them immediately back into focus without the feeling that you’ve been studying for a test.

The periodic table is a broad subject, even when taken strictly.  Just understanding why the thing is laid out the way it is and what it says keeps physics and chemistry students busy for weeks.  If you throw in a historical discussion of how we figured out the layout, there’s quite a bit to say.  Kean doesn’t say all of that.  In fact, he strays from the details and evolution of the table itself pretty quickly, branching into other areas of physics, chemistry and the people who do them.  If you are interested in that in-depth exploration, you will be disappointed.

I was not disappointed.  The topics and discussions are connected and intriguing.  Though Kean never goes into the secret origins of the periodic table in obsessive detail, everything he talks about rhetorically connects.  He started from the table, and stays connected, so there’s always a way to where we started.  And the trips are interesting and informative.

Strongly recommended.

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