four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Sam Kean
user_rating: 
0

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

A-The Disappearing SpoonA reporter for Science magazine, Sam Kean’s work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, the New Scientist, Air & Space, and Mental Floss.

The Topic: "There’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table," contends Kean, who promptly sets off on a whirlwind tour of its 118 components. Consider German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, who thought he’d gone mad when he caught sight of the bones in his own hand through barium-coated plates (he’d just discovered X-rays). Or Montana candidate for Congress Stan Jones, whose colloidal silver self-treatments have permanently colored his skin blue. Mercury led archaeologists to Lewis and Clark’s campsites; europium thwarts counterfeiters; and gallium makes an ineffective spoon: its ridiculously low melting point causes it to dissolve in hot food. These scientific building blocks, Kean argues, have shaped our modern world in strange and surprising ways.
Little, Brown. 400 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780316051644

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Sam Kean, winner of the National Association of Science Writers’ runner-up award for best writer under the age of 30, is brimming with puckish wit, and his love for the elements is downright infectious. ... He gives science a whiz-bang verve so that every page becomes one you cannot wait to turn just to see what he’s going to reveal next" Caroline Leavitt

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Sam Kean, whose interest in the chemical world began with the inadvisable childhood activity of snapping open mercury thermometers, unpacks the periodic table’s bag of tricks ... with such aplomb and fascination that material normally as heavy as lead transmutes into gold. ... With the anecdotal flourishes of Oliver Sacks and the populist accessibility of Malcolm Gladwell, but without the latter’s occasional facileness, he makes even the most abstract concepts graspable for armchair scientists." Keith Staskiewicz

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps ... if Sam Kean were in charge of designing the curriculum for chem class, we’d all be a little bit more interested in the often thrilling and sometimes scandalous interactions of protons and electrons. ... Whether a scientist, historian or gossip queen, there is something for almost every kind of reader here." Kate Quealy-Gainer

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kean works to dissect intricate physics and chemistry, such as quantum mechanics or radioactive decay, into layman’s terms, but these sections produce the unpleasant sensation of cramming an entire semester course in one sitting (while fully expecting to fail). ... Kean’s palpable enthusiasm and the thrill of knowledge and invention the book imparts can infect even the most right-brained reader." Christine Thomas

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Disappearing Spoon only occasionally feels overly simplified or hard to follow. ... But most of the book is strong, a simple, well-written collection of comic, tragic, and just plain strange stories starring the members of the periodic table." Samantha Nelson

Salon.com 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is all familiar stuff from high school chemistry, but it doesn’t come across all that well in words alone unless you know it already, despite the lively metaphors Kean invents to describe what’s going on. Fortunately, this material is not essential to enjoying what this book provides: an adventurous, far-ranging survey that offers great good fun." Leonard Cassuto

Critical Summary

"Who would have guessed that the periodic table contains as much backstabbing and infighting as the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model?" mused the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Indeed, this "wild anecdotal ride" (Boston Globe), which spills over with Kean’s infectious enthusiasm and mischievous humor, beguiled critics by making seemingly dull subjects fascinating and fun. Kean’s pithy, conversational prose and gift for tackling difficult concepts in clear, graspable layman’s terms escort readers from one juicy story to the next, though a few reviewers wished they had remembered high school chemistry. A couple of critics grumbled about unnecessary generalizations and a lack of diagrams, but most agreed with the Boston Globe: "Kean makes you see and experience and appreciate the world differently, with a real sense of wonder and a joy of discovery."