Book Quote:

“When most people think of the periodic table, they remember a chart hanging on the front wall of their high school chemistry class, an asymmetric expanse of columns and rows looming over one of the teacher’s shoulders. The chart was usually enormous, six by four feet or so, a size both daunting and appropriate, given its importance to chemistry.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (DEC 28, 2010)

One of the most striking pictures in Sam Kean’s entertaining book, The Disappearing Spoon, is of an innocuous ceramic pot. The “trendy” Revigator, the caption points out, is a pottery crock lined with nuclear radium. “Users filled the flask with water, which turned radioactive after a night’s soak. Instructions suggested drinking six or more refreshing glasses a day.”

True to its title, The Disappearing Spoon is full of such awesome and intriguing facts and tales related to the periodic table. The “disappearing spoon” of the title for example, would make a cool April Fool’s trick. Fashion a spoon with gallium—which molds easily and looks like aluminum—and set it out with tea. Guests would be horrified to see their spoons “disappear” as they used it to stir their Earl Grey, Kean reports.

The Disappearing Spoon also touches on the role of cadmium in the Japanese disease called itai-itai (“ouch-ouch”) and the use of gadolinium in picking out tumors from MRIs.

Of course chemicals have a dark side too and Kean also describes the stories of how chemical warfare came to be. The role of the chemical elements in shaping (or being shaped by) world history is also outlined here as in the horrific gas chambers used in the Holocaust. Tantalum, used often in high-tech devices, is found in The Republic of Congo, Kean points out. Its neighbor, Rwanda, has been decimated by war and history does intersect with chemistry in such dire ways. Sometimes though, Kean does too much of a stretch when connecting the dots and these connections seem frayed. His linking of Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement to the element sodium (Gandhi’s signature call to nonviolence was in the form of protesting the British tax on salt) is one such example.

The Disappearing Spoon also has many fun tales about the scientists who tinkered with the elements. The scientist, Enrico Fermi, for example, “once asked junior colleagues to figure out how many millimeters thick the dust could get on the famously dirty windows in his lab before the dust avalanched and collapsed under its own weight and sloughed onto the floor.” A man after my own heart!

You don’t have to be a chemistry nerd to love this book. In fact, the chatty tone which author Sam Kean uses is meant to be non-intimidating and attract even the most reluctant science reader.

This book definitely belongs in high school chemistry labs. After all everybody—even a seemingly disinterested high school student—loves a good yarn. A word of caution to the highschoolers though: Just don’t follow the lead of Gyorgy Hevesy when trying to figure out if your school cafeteria is recycling its meat through it’s “manager’s specials.” After all, radioactive lead in food is quite the turnoff.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 56 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (July 12, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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December 28, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Non-fiction

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