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

Bewilderment (SF) - Richard Powers ****

Generally speaking, I avoid anything listed for the Booker Prize as being too worthy and pretentious to be bothered with, but I'd heard good things about Bewilderment , and I have found in the past that genre books that manage to get past the literati ( Wolf Hall , for example) are far better than the average entry. The publisher would probably disagree, but the reality is that Bewilderment is science fiction. I wondered to start with if Richard Powers was dealing more in Lab Lit - fiction with a scientific context but where the science isn't the driver in how people's lives are changed - but this is pretty solid SF. Clearly the book is strongly influenced by that SF classic Flowers for Algernon - in fact, Powers does a couple of open hat tips in its direction. Although Bewilderment isn't as ground-breaking as Flowers , it follows the model of a person's brain being changed by science to deal with an issue, but here it's an emotional problem rather than an in

Human-Centered AI - Ben Shneiderman ****

Reading some popular science books is like biting into a luscious peach. Others are more like being presented with an almond - you have to do a lot of work to get through a difficult shell to get to the bit you want. This is very much an almond of a book, but it's worth the effort. At the time of writing, two popular science topics have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to find anything new to say about them - neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Almost all the (many) AI books I've read have either been paeans to its wonders or dire warnings of how AI will take over the world or make opaque and biassed decisions that destroy lives. What is really refreshing about Ben Shneiderman's book is that it does neither of these - instead it provides an approach to benefit from AI without suffering the negative consequences. That's why it's an important piece of work. To do this, Shneiderman takes us right back to the philosophical contrast between rationalism and e

The Genetic Lottery - Kathryn Paige Harden ****

Sometimes you get hold of a book, then keep putting off reading it, because it seems like it's going to be hard work. That's what I did with The Genetic Lottery - in a sense I was right. It could have been more accessible in its writing style, but where I was expecting a woke, knee-jerk response to genetics and social equality, what we get instead is a well-reasoned argument for taking a different approach, combined with more in-depth explanation of the traps it is possible to fall into when dealing with the influence of genes on cognitive ability, earning etc. - and how to avoid them. Kathryn Paige Harden has to tread carefully. Any mention of linking genetics and ability is liable to face an instant accusation of resorting Galtonesque eugenics. However, Harden espouses what she calls anti-eugenics. It is not enough, she suggests to be genetics blind. If we really want equity of opportunity, we need to try to level out genetic favourability just as much as we should try to de