Book Club, History, Nonfiction, STEM

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

This was one of my selections for Nonfiction Book Club! Continuing on my obsession with radiation and chemistry, it was a most enthralling read.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
From New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean comes incredible stories of science, history, finance, mythology, the arts, medicine, and more, as told by the Periodic Table.

Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?

The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. The Disappearing Spoon masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery — from the Big Bang through the end of time.

Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A classic science prank is to mold gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch guests recoil as their utensils disappear.

Review

This wound up being, unsurprisingly, one of my favorite Nonfiction Book Club selections of 2021. I’d been wanting to read a Sam Kean book for awhile, and thought my first would admittedly be The Violinist’s Thumb, given my musical background as a violist, but The Disappearing Spoon seemed like it had broader book club appeal. And my current obsession, or revisited obsession, with the periodic table and, specifically, radioactivity.

As with most book club books, I listened to this one and while it worked for me, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing so if you do not already have a background in chemistry or great familiarity with the Periodic Table (I’ve taken 5 semesters of chemistry classes between high school and college and weirdly took organic chemistry as an elective, for fun). There are a lot of very helpful visuals in the book, and given how Sam organizes the chapters, those visuals are very helpful if you cannot recall the table from memory. Or if you do listen, do so with a copy of the table next to you, that would work too.

The Disappearing Spoon falls solidly in the pop-science category, making it perfect for the non-chemist reader to enjoy and a great book club selection. Collectively we enjoyed it immensely and it was great fun to discuss our various amounts of background knowledge on the table. We had the most fun discussing radioactive elements, unsurprising given that that is where most of our shared knowledge is (previous Nonfiction Book Club books include Radium Girls and Midnight in Chernobyl).

Each chapter discusses a group of elements and Sam goes into how they were discovered with anecdotes about the scientists who found them as well as any relevant anecdotes about the element throughout history. He also explains the Periodic Table’s organizational structure, as well as the history of the table including it’s previous iterations.

Overall, this is a pretty quick and enjoyable read, a tour through the wonders of chemistry and the periodic table. Collectively as a book club we enjoyed it and it is definitely one of our favorites that we have read over the course of our meetings.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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