Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

book cover

The Disappearing Spoon:
...the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
by Sam Kean

Hardback: 400 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
First Released: July 2010

Source: Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher.

Book Description, my take:
Learn about the history of the world through the story of the periodic table. From the tale of how the Big Bang created all of the natural elements to stories from the international race among scientists to discover and then create new elements, it's not a peaceful history. Sam Kean teaches the chemistry and physics surrounding the elements on the periodic table through stories of the Noble-winning scientists who studied them. It's science and social history with some trivia (like the prank involving a dissolving metal spoon) scattered throughout.

The Disappearing Spoon teaches the chemistry and physics of atoms and the periodic table. It's taught primarily in the context of short biographies about the Noble prize winning scientists (plus some others) who discovered the various elements or who discovered important things about how the elements or atoms are put together.

Based on the book description I was given, I was expecting more trivia about the elements and how they are and have been used rather than a book teaching science with a main focus on scientists. However, the author's casual, lively, and sometimes crude tone made the stories entertaining--probably even more so to young males than to me. I did get a little tired of the author's judgmental attitude, though. It seemed like every human action had to be either brilliant or insanely stupid.

The author's explanations of how things worked (atoms, periodic table, etc.) were easy for me to follow, but that might partly be because I took a lot of science courses in college. The initial science lessons were high school level, but the ending lessons were more college level (though high schoolers can probably follow them).

The book primarily focused on science and scientists, but there were a few stories of invention, greed, destruction or just plain weirdness based around non-scientists. Though I didn't actually check to make sure, it seemed like every element on the periodic table was covered at least briefly. Some of the areas in which he discussed the use of the elements were warfare (chemical warfare, nuclear bombs, dirty bombs), medicine, politics, art, biology (especially DNA), as poison, as money (counterfeiting, a strange gold rush), and under super-cool conditions. He also covered a Big Bang model of how the elements were formed (with a "see, no god needed!" emphasis), how radiometric dating methods were thought up and used to generate dates for the age of the Earth that were old enough to give biological evolution a chance of occurring (since previous dating methods gave too "young" of an age to allow for it), and how biases can prevent critical viewing of scientific data (though he didn't seem to notice his own bias).

He worked a lot of "there is no God, humans & Earth aren't special, and evolution is true" apologetics into this book. I wouldn't mind so much if, in the appendix, he hadn't presented what "young-earth creationists believe" by mixing true statements with misrepresented and apparently ridiculous ones as well as completely inaccurate ones. So now, if these readers come across the true argument, they'll dismiss it without really considering it--they'll think they know all about it when they don't.

There were a few black and white photographs of scientists and a few charts. I thought it funny that the author mentioned how important bubble research proved to be in furthering atomic research, yet my grandpa--who was world-renown for doing some of the basic bubble research the author kept referring to--was never mentioned by name. (It's funny because I could never understand why researching bubble formation was important until after he died, when I'd read books like this one.)

Overall, the book was entertaining and interesting, though not so much so that I'd want to read it again. The people who'd be most interested by it are probably high school or college age males who idolize science as pure and untarnished but who also like somewhat scandalous tales about scientists, their competitions to make Noble-winning discoveries, and their fights over who made a discovery first.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from pages 47-48:
Disappointingly, German chemist Robert Bunsen didn't actually invent "his" burner, just improved the design and popularized it in the mid-1800s. Even without the Bunsen burner, he managed to pack plenty of danger and destruction into his life.

Bunsen's first love was arsenic. Although element thirty-three has had quite a reputation since ancient times (Roman assassins used to smear it on figs), few law-abiding chemists knew much about arsenic before Bunsen started sloshing it around in test tubes. He worked primarily with arsenic-based cacodyls, chemicals whose name is based on the Greek word for "stinky." Cacodyls smelled so foul, Bunsen said, they made him hallucinate, "produc[ing] instantaneous tingling of the hands and feet, even giddiness and insensibility." His tongue became "covered with a black coating." Perhaps from self-interest, he soon developed what's still the best antidote to arsenic poisoning, iron oxide hydrate, a chemical related to rust that clamps onto arsenic in the blood and drags it out. Still, he couldn't shield himself from every danger. The careless explosion of a glass beaker of arsenic nearly blew out his right eye and left him half-bind for the last sixty years of his life.

Read an excerpt.

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