Friday, 14 January 2011

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.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

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