Monday, November 5, 2012

The Disappearing Spoon 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 ElementsThe 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
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius."

I can't really speak to the scientific accuracy of this book, but I really enjoyed listening to the stories that come from the periodic table. I feel like I learned some things, which isn't that difficult of a feat since what I remember from my high school chemistry class has more to do with the people sitting near me (we called ourselves the Peanut Gallery). I have vague memories of a teacher, the great Thorstein Sabo, who tried to teach us about the periodic table by telling us stories about electrons playing cribbage in the electron hotel. I didn't really get it.

This book groups different elements, and tells stories about them in context of political intrigue, devastating consequences, and lifesaving discoveries. Coincidentally, I am also reading Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, a book with a lot of parallels to The Disappearing Spoon. Where The Disappearing Spoon demonstrates how war interrupts scientific process, Rites of Spring shows the same about war interfering in the arts. You have to wonder how much farther, or at least different, both science and the arts would be, had we never had the world wars consuming the first half of the twentieth century.

The tiny pieces of information I didn't know would fill a book, this book. It would be impossible to even recite them, but I particularly enjoyed the story of argyria, silver poisoning, and the senate/governor hopeful who drank collodial silver in preparation for Y2K. Argyria turns your skin blue... permanently. Papa smurf!

I also made a note to myself to check out the poet Lowell, who is one of the first people to be treated with Lithium for mental illness. Salt (not an element) was also put into perspective with Ghandi and enforced iodine and I just don't know whether to be grateful that my government is preventing birth defects or to be freaked out that they are adding things like iodine to salt and fluoride to the water.

The audiobook was great for this. Sean Runnette has a unique voice that I enjoyed in zombie stories but still translated well to science!

I will leave you with the song I could not get out of my head during my listen to the second half of the book.


  1. Yay! Barenaked Ladies!

    I might have to check out this book. It sounds like my kind of book.


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