While a few star elements like gold, oxygen, and plutonium get plenty of attention, the rest of the periodic table is rarely discussed outside of chemistry labs. But even the most obscure gasses and metals get some space from Science Magazine writer Sam Kean in his first book, The Disappearing Spoon And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements.
Kean starts by discussing the creation of the periodic table, detailing the breakthroughs and rivalries that led to the elegant system used to organize all the known elements in a way that can hang on a classroom wall. His work chronicles how human understanding of the elements has grown through the centuries through technological breakthroughs. The science is peppered with anecdotes about the scientists responsible, such as how Robert Bunsen loved experimenting with arsenic, the man credited with creating the first periodic table was a bigamist and anarchist, and the discoverer of X-rays terrified his wife, who thought the image of her bones was a premonition of death.
Each chapter starts with a line of periodic-table boxes, introducing the elements featured in the coming pages. Kean’s survey is focused on breadth, not depth, and few elements get more than a couple of paragraphs explaining their importance or discovery throughout history, ranging from how molybdenum gave German armaments an edge during World War I to how europium dyes make euros so difficult to counterfeit. He acknowledges that while new surprising properties of elements are being discovered all the time, some are still thought to be worthless, while others are given too much credit. Silicon is similar to carbon, but he shows how the differences between the two elements are enough to make silicon-based life highly unlikely.
The Disappearing Spoon only occasionally feels overly simplified or hard to follow. Kean comes across as naïve when he bemoans the use of elements in warfare and writes that counterfeiters don’t understand that they could make more money working “an honest trade” than trying to make their own currency. 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.