Andy's Reviews > The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
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May 16, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction, science
Read in May, 2011

The history is fun, the science less so. Author Sam Kean plays storyteller with the periodic table. The book is split between gentle explanations of chemistry and physics and colorful anecdotes about scientists, inventors, businessmen, and others who have made history with the elements, both in practical and impractical ways.

The stories about people are the best. When learning about historical figures, it's easy to distill away all aspects of their lives except the specific things for which they are famous. I think this is particularly true of scientists and mathematicians and other figures whose claims to fame rest in impersonal, objective discoveries. So when you read a book like this you learn that Fritz Haber, whose name I had only associated with textbook diagrams of the Haber cycle, was a pretty terrible person. Or that Watson and Crick were scared that Pauling would beat them to the punch on DNA structure, and won partially because Pauling was too confident in his own work to acknowledge and correct his errors.

The science is not generally explained too well. My complaints here have nothing to do with depth; of course I realize it's just a popular science book. But when I encountered topics I did not know much about prior to reading this book, I felt that Kean was sometimes good, but also sometimes unhelpful, with explanations that were sometimes arbitrary, and factoids that were not presented very systematically and ended up reading like a grab bag of trivia.

I know that arbitrary explanations are a reality of science when we don't know the answers for sure and are often necessary for popular reading if you want to avoid the really hard stuff. But for technical and popular audiences alike I think you have to try to make the science as logical and systematic as possible; there's a lot less intellectual joy in learning disparate random facts than understanding why things work together the way they do. If that means sacrificing some breadth for depth, that's fine with me.
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