Chemistry · stuff I read

The Disappearing Spoon (and Reading Chemistry!)


I’m a big nerd.  I think chemistry is pretty fun (where else do you get to set stuff on fire, distill alcohol, make drugs, and play with expensive machinery like Rotovaps and even more expensive machinery like NMRs).  I heard Sam Kean speaking on NPR about his new book The Disappearing Spoon, a book that is all about the elements on the Periodic TableIt sounded so wonderful I just had to have it – I opened up my nook, called up the Shop, and had it downloaded in about a minute.  Ahhhh, book love, instant gratification at my fingertips.

Anyway, back to The Disappearing Spoon.  Kean doesn’t start with hydrogen, helium, and beryllium, discussing each element in turn as the periodic table ascends in number – good for a textbook, not so fun for a popular science book.  Kean instead groups the elements by type (noble gases), function (poisoner’s corner), or interesting stories (gallium tea spoons and radioactive lead).  He opens the book with his own fascination with mercury (an element strongly linked with his childhood) and then on into the depths of the periodic table.  This allows him to talk about elements that are chemically similar or elements with similar stories of discovery.  The periodicity of the elements (the first functional arrangement is credited to Mendeleev) helped a number of chemists, some of them quite eccentric, determine where and how to look for “new” elements.  

Kean does a great job of both telling stories and explaining the chemistry.   Having a chemistry background, I wasn’t bored when Kean gave an elementary explanation; that being said, a casual reader without a scientific background won’t be overwhelmed by technical explanations and equations.  The Disappearing Spoon is really a fun book to get people interested in the stories behind the science (scientists are just as nutty and gossipy as the average human) – from there people might stay interested in the science.  Who knows what somone might discover.

Discoveries lead to squabbles, squabbles make for great anecdotes.  Some are pretty funny, some are sad.  Some, like that of Primo Levi, whose knowledge of chemistry allowed him to obtain food and survive the concentration camps of World War II, led me to new books and a new project/blog Reading Chemistry.  I had a brain wave – with the International Year of Chemistry ocurring in 2011, why not have a blog for reading chemistry-related books of all types?  My goal was to get it set up before 2011 and then keep going when the year is over.  I might add other contributors as I go but for now it’s just me and some cross-posted reviews.  Yay, chemistry!

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