Review of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
by Sam Kean
Talk about lengthy subtitles! This book has a retro styling to it, but scratch the surface and you’ll find it quite modern in its outlook. Sam Kean takes us on a journey through the periodic table: its history, the properties of its elements, and how those elements have fascinated/charmed/influenced our lives from ancient times to the modern era. The Disappearing Spoon is a blend of physics and history, science and sociology.
Although loosely chronological, Kean’s organization is more thematic than anything else. The first chapters explore the origins of our knowledge of elements and the creation of early periodic tables (or equivalent structures). The last chapters discuss the future of elemental chemistry and particle physics, meditating on such lofty questions as the maximum number of elements out there. (Interestingly, the book’s explanation for why it’s unlikely there are more than 137 elements is incorrect, perhaps somewhat oversimplified or outdated.) In between, however, Kean groups elements together based on the types of stories he has dug up about them. Some stories are highly scientific, others are industrial, and others still are tragically personal.
This book was highly successful in terms of teaching me new and interesting things! I will likely forget most of the anecdotes Kean shares here, but some will stick with me. For example, I was fascinated by the story of molybdenum’s role in the First World War, how Germany secretly exploited the only industrial source, which was located within the United States, and the similar story of tungsten in the Second World War and Portugal’s shrewd but morally dubious cornering of the market.
Indeed, if The Disappearing Spoon is anything, it’s an advertisement for the importance of materials science. So much of our technological innovation—which in turn leads to vast social improvements—comes from tinkering with chemical elements and compounds, either to make manufacturing them more efficient or to combine them in new, hitherto unanticipated ways. Elements like gadolinium, chromium, niobium might sound exotic to us laypeople, yet they have become essential to modern computing. Our entire way of life is underpinned by elements and compounds we either haven’t heard of or don’t think much about. It’s cool and breathtaking at the same time, and I think Kean does a good job, through this selection of anecdotes, of illustrating the scope of human ingenuity (and occasionally, cruelty or shortsightedness) when it comes to chemistry and physics.
The book dives pretty deep into the particle physics behind chemical elements too, which I wasn’t expecting from its description. It probably taught me more about electron shells and orbitals than I learned in my high school chemistry classes! I appreciate how Kean wants us to understand the deep links between phenomena like radioactivity and the decay of subatomic particles. Many of the stories Kean shares demonstrate how earlier investigators of the elements would observe a trait but not have a deep explanation for it, and quantum mechanics has helped us understand the why behind everything from an element’s reactivity to how common it is on Earth or in our universe.
The chemical elements are truly the building blocks of … well, everything. The Disappearing Spoon shows this and furnishes us with a lot of science while remaining quite accessible. I’ve got another element-focused book lined up to read soon as a companion to this one (I’ll update this review with a link when I’ve reviewed it) to continue my journey.