The Disappearing Spoon (Book Review)

The Disappearing Spoon is a wonderful book about “madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements”. The title refers to a trick teaspoon made of gallium, a metal with a low melting point, which disappears as it stirs a hot cup of tea.

Sam Kean takes us through biography, history, medicine, art, and really cool facts via the periods and groups (or rows and columns) of the periodic table. He has a tough job: we probably remember the periodic table as a large, very plain chart in the science lab, something to stare at during a dull lesson. But in the first pages, we see that the periodic table and what it represents is so much more. From learning how the characteristic of elements changes depending on their table position, to being able to predict the properties of atoms before they’ve been discovered, it is a brilliant concept.

But this book isn’t hard science; it is brought to life by telling the stories of the elements, both chemical and human.

Like Radioactive (reviewed by Louise a few days ago), this book gives us more on the Marie/Pierre story, along with many other people whose lives intersected and interacted with various elements. Like David Hahn, an earnest if misguided kid, who managed to amass the knowledge, equipment and materials (yep, however this was pre-September 11) to build a nuclear reactor in his mum’s garden shed. He desperately wanted to solve the world’s energy problems. His mum and dad “assumed that David was smarter than they were and [he] knew what he was doing”.

Then there are elements as poison. Chemistry dictates the properties that make a good poison, but it is humans that really make it scary. Consider thallium, “the poisoner’s poison…the deadliest element on the periodic table”. Within our bodies, thallium mimics life-sustaining elements. It tricks our cells, masquerading as chemically-similar potassium, and proceeds to rage through the body “like a molecular Mongol horde”. And humans have quite a history of exploiting it for nefarious ends. The CIA planned to powder Fidel Castro’s socks with thallium. Kean reports that “there is no record of why this plan was never attempted”.

The Disappearing Spoon mirrors the periodic table itself.  It is a map of things that disappear, of the unseen, both in terms of the physical world of atoms and the cultural world that we’ve created out of our own sets of atoms.

Thank you to Brenna for this review.

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One response to “The Disappearing Spoon (Book Review)

  1. Thank you to both Brenna and Louise for introducing a very different kind of writing – scientific writing – to the Reading Women blog. The theme this month is non-fiction, so their reviews fit in perfectly – while being interestingly different to the food writing and historical / social topics we have discussed so far.

    What strikes me immediately is the emphasis we all place on the quality and style of the writing ( no matter what the genre) and the fact that we are all fascinated by ‘stories’ , the human side of the equation – stories of scientific discovery and the people who made them, stories of personal experience in post-war Germany, stories of Australian women cooking up a storm and finding companionship in rural communities.