THE DISAPPEARING SPOON by Sam Kean
“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 teacherâ€™s shoulders. The chart was usually enormous, six by four feet or so, a size both daunting and appropriate, given its importance to chemistry.”
Review by Poornima Apte (DEC 28, 2010)
One of the most striking pictures in Sam Keanâ€™s entertaining book, The Disappearing Spoon, is of an innocuous ceramic pot. The â€śtrendyâ€ť Revigator, the caption points out, is a pottery crock lined with nuclear radium. â€śUsers filled the flask with water, which turned radioactive after a nightâ€™s soak. Instructions suggested drinking six or more refreshing glasses a day.â€ť
True to its title, The Disappearing Spoon is full of such awesome and intriguing facts and tales related to the periodic table. The â€śdisappearing spoonâ€ť of the title for example, would make a cool April Foolâ€™s trick. Fashion a spoon with galliumâ€”which molds easily and looks like aluminumâ€”and set it out with tea. Guests would be horrified to see their spoons â€śdisappearâ€ť 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 (â€śouch-ouchâ€ť) 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 Gandhiâ€™s freedom movement to the element sodium (Gandhiâ€™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, â€śonce 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.â€ť A man after my own heart!
You donâ€™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 everybodyâ€”even a seemingly disinterested high school studentâ€”loves a good yarn. A word of caution to the highschoolers though: Just donâ€™t follow the lead of Gyorgy Hevesy when trying to figure out if your school cafeteria is recycling its meat through itâ€™s â€śmanagerâ€™s specials.â€ť After all, radioactive lead in food is quite the turnoff.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 56 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (July 12, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Sam Kean|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||A fiction series with girl chem wiz:
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- The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (July 2010)