Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (2010, Little Brown and Co)

The Disappearing Spoon is a collection of essays about the development of the periodic table and the discovery of the elements and their various uses. In large part it is a history of science, but told through a series of stories relating to scientists, and their work and rivalries. But it also details the science related to the periodic table, the constituent elements, their properties and useful characteristics. Kean also mixes in other anecdotes relating to mythology, medicine, industry, war, etc.

In terms of organisation, Kean loosely structures the book into four parts and focuses each chapter on a group of related elements. It creates a somewhat jumbled arrangement (and in some ways the essays could be read in any order), but it does mean that just about every element is discussed in some fashion. It is difficult to see how else to give the book its wide scope given overlapping timelines of discovery – a straight chronology would have been difficult, but the structure does make the book feel somewhat bitty at times.

The writing can also be a bit dry and impenetrable for someone who has little chemistry, physics or biology knowledge, though Kean does a reasonable job at trying to introduce and explain various science breakthroughs that won numerous Nobel prizes, and gives it a human edge by discussing the lives of those who made the telling discovery. Nonetheless, there were passages that will mean a helluva lot more to those with a science background than the average reader.

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