Skip to main content

The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean *****

Winning the honour of being the first five star book of 2011, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon is an entertaining romp through the chemical elements. Rather than take the kind of rigid, structured walk through the periodic table that might seem the natural approach, Kean lumps together rather random collections of elements, linked only by the wonderful rambling tales of their discovery, use and general oddity.
In case you were wondering, the ‘disappearing spoon’ refers to gallium, which has a melting point of around 30 degrees Celsius. Despite being a metal with a fair resemblance to aluminium, it will melt in your hands (unlike certain sweets). So make a spoon out of gallium, give it to someone to stir their tea, then sit back and chortle as they wonder where the spoon went. Ah, how we laughed.
This book is entirely entertaining – it’s a real page turner, and there’s very little not to like about the combination of a string of QI like fascinating facts with a whole slew of engaging stories. Of course we get Mendeleev (and a couple of his counterparts), but mostly its about the elements themselves.
If I have to quibble, Kean is not at his best explaining atomic orbits and bonding – I thought that could have been done better – and sometimes the casual phrasing seems a trifle overdone. So for instance we read ‘… had sponsored porcelain research but had succeeded in producing only C-minus knockoffs.’ This feels a bit forced to me. Similarly we hear that Henry Moseley was ‘a pill, stiff and stuffy.’ I’ve no idea what being ‘a pill’ means (unless he was small, white and swallowable), and this sort of one-line characterisation seems more appropriate to 1066 and All That than it is to a modern popular science book. However, such lapses are relatively uncommon. (I ought to also mention that he claims calling a person who does calculations ‘a computer’ was a neologism in the Manhattan Project – if he’d bothered to check, the term has been used since the 17th century.)
Overall this was a book that was a delight to read, taking a very predictable subject and approaching it in an entertaining, original and informative way. If you want to read a serious history of the periodic table and the possible alternatives take a look at Eric Scerri’s The Periodic Table, but if you want to be entertained and find out lots of history and fascinating facts around the elements themselves, this is the one for you. Recommended. (See also Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales.)
Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Harford - Four Way Interview

Photo by Frank Monks Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of the million-selling The Undercover Economist. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less the iTunes-topping series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, and the podcast Cautionary Tales. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019. His latest book is How to Make the World Add Up . Why statistics? Statistics tend to be viewed as a vector for misinformation - hence the popularity of Darrell Huff's book How To Lie With Statistics (said to be the most popular book about statistics ever written) and numerous modern classics such as Bad Science and Innumeracy. But statistics are also a vital tool for understanding the world

There are Places in the World where Rules are Les Important than Kindness - Carlo Rovelli ****

This is, without doubt, Carlo Rovelli's best book. I have not been impressed by his previous popular science titles - too much purple prose and not enough depth. But in this collection of wide ranging short articles, he has found his metier, able to flit from interest to interest, often captivating with his enthusiasm for everything from Nabokov to Newton’s alchemy. And, unlike its predecessors, this book is a decent length. Rovelli is clearly far more interested in philosophy than many physicists, rightly criticising those who make blanket denials of its value. A good number of the pieces touch on philosophy and its application to science, on subjects from quantum mechanics to consciousness. However, having as he does a scientific viewpoint, those who are put off by philosophy should still find the pieces interesting, if challenging to their prejudices. Some of the articles are solid science - for example a trio of articles on black holes. Others take us into perhaps surprising as

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Universe - Andrew Newsam ****

Nowadays, TV science presenters tend to be young, attractive and matey, but there was a time when they were more like erudite but twinkly old uncles, imparting their wisdom to the next generation. Andrew Newsam's writing style is very much in this wise old uncle vein.  I don't see this as a bad thing - quite the reverse. In my youth, the doyen of such eccentric TV uncles was Patrick Moore, who got me interested in astronomy to the extent of being out on dark nights with a 6 inch reflector. Moore wrote clear, readable books - and Newsam gives us a straightforward, accessible tour of the astronomical universe in solid Moore style. The title is a bit of an exaggeration - it's not so much everything you might want to know about the universe, but rather about astronomy. However, within that field Newsam gives us well-constructed tours of the view from Earth, the Sun as a star, the solar system, stars in general, galaxies and the Big Bang. Although there is a touch of astrophysic