The Disappearing Spoon is a marvelous collection of stories about the elements of the periodic table. You may think this is an arcane undertaking--how much do we really remember (or want to remember) of that chart hanging on the classroom wall? Sam Kean says part of the frustration you might have had with the periodic table was that, even though you could consult it during exams, "a gigantic and fully sanctioned cheat sheet, it remained less than frickin' helpful." Most people recall the table with fear and loathing, but Kean is enthralled by the table, and the tales of obsession, quirkiness and mystery that surround the elements. For instance:
Marie Curie isolated polonium, but Kean says that "naming her first element after Poland contributed nothing to [the country's independence efforts]. In fact, it turned out to have been a rash decision. As a metal, polonium is useless. It decays so quickly it might have been a mocking metaphor for Poland itself."
"The lightest element in poisoner's corridor is cadmium, which traces its notoriety to an ancient mine in central Japan."
"Gold is an aloof metal." Other metals can be mistaken for gold because they shine, like calaverite. "You can imagine a raw, dirty eighteen-year-old hauling in calaverite nuggets to the local appraiser in Hannan's Find, only to hear the appraiser dismiss them as a sackful of what mineralogists classify as bagoshite."
How about the story of David Hahn, who grew obsessed with dangerous elements? He wanted to solve the world's energy crisis and break its addiction to oil. He desired this so badly--"as badly as only a teenager can want something--that this Detroit sixteen-year-old, as part of a clandestine Eagle Scout project gone berserk in the mid-1990s, erected a nuclear reactor in a potting shed in his mother's backyard."
The science is fascinating; the stories amazing, astounding and sometimes tragic; and Kean's enthusiastic wit runs throughout the book ("Back in berkelium, californium, anger followed shock."). If you thought you wouldn't be captivated by a science book, think again. The Disappearing Spoon will change your mind.--Marilyn Dahl
Shelf Talker: A fascinating and witty tour through all the elements of that bane of high school chemistry, the periodic table.