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

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,