What I Wish My Chemistry Classes Were Like – A Review of The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

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I love science. In grade school it was right at the top of my list of favorite subjects (in third after literature and history), and I had aspirations of entering science-related careers when my age was still a single-digit number: paleontology, at first, and then medicine later on. My parents had such high hopes for the latter, until I discovered midway through high school that medicine just wasn’t for me, and it would be best if I turned my attention something I was really, truly good at.

There are two reasons for my deciding I didn’t want to go into medicine. The first is that I’ve developed a phobia of hypodermic needles and blood lancets. This is the result of having contracted dengue twice while I was in grade school, and thus I was forced to suffer being hooked up to an IV line and having my fingertips pricked once every hour on my first day in the hospital in order to acquire blood samples for testing (please note this was in the
’90s; I’m sure testing for dengue has advanced significantly since then).

The second reason might be considered silly, but at the time I was deciding what I wanted to do in university, so it was an important consideration: I just wasn’t very good at chemistry when I was in high school. Now, don’t get me wrong: I do rather enjoy chemistry. It’s an intriguing subject, if a bit difficult to understand at times, but I’ve never let difficulty of understanding be a hindrance in enjoying anything. The big hurdle – eventually wall – was that chemistry relied very heavily on mathematics. And since I was aware that a good grounding in chemistry was necessary to making significant progress in medicine, I decided that my weakness when it came to math would make medicine more difficult than it normally would be had I been at least competent enough for chemistry.

Since then, I’ve only ever really dabbled in chemistry, letting my peripheral interest in it filter into my reading – mostly through the sci-fi I consume, and the occasional non-fiction book I pick up. Even when I read non-fiction, though, it’s never been exclusively about chemistry; it’s always about some other context, with discussions of chemistry-related topics added in to give a fuller picture.

When I discovered Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements, I was intrigued. Aside from the inclusion of the phrase “disappearing spoon” in the title, the other crucial word was “history.” The title promised chemical wonders (and I do love scientifically-explainable wonders), as well as a discussion of chemistry from a perspective I could appreciate.

Kean’s decision to use the periodic table as the basis for the framework for his book was, I think, a good one. If chemistry needed a “universal symbol,” the periodic table is definitely it, given how recognizable it is as being related to that subject. Fortunately, the periodic table is organized in such a manner that similar elements, usually with related stories, are clustered together, so Kean had a part of his organization for the book right there, ready-made. All that was left, really, was to tell the stories.

And what a wonderful collection of stories it is! It is very clear even to the people who are not entirely fond of chemistry that the elements in the periodic table, and the immense number of combinations they can form, are pretty much the basis for everything humanity has today – including life itself. From the mundane graphite in pencils to DNA; from grubby pennies to the most powerful microchips; all the way to nuclear reactions and the things that begin with the words “quantum and “nano,” chemistry and the elements on the periodic table have had something to do with them all. Kean also attempts to tell these stories in a lighthearted mode – something which I think he carries over from his work with Mental Floss.

A bulk of the “stories” I’ve mentioned above are the stories of the scientists themselves. Serious biographers will certainly cringe, but I liked how the stories were told in a familiar, slightly gossipy tone. The book, after all, is not an attempt at a serious biography; it’s just an overview of these people who have been instrumental in shaping the periodic table into what it is today. I also liked how Kean emphasized the important role women scientists have played in some of the most important scientific discoveries of their time. He mentions Marie Curie, of course, but he also makes mention of her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, and the countless unnamed women who worked on the Manhattan Project as computers (in the sense that they computed the innumerable calculations that the Manhattan Project needed to figure out how much radioactive material would be needed and in what proportions to make a thermonuclear bomb). Women in the sciences and mathematics tend to get short shrift in terms of recognition for their work, but Kean does try to give them credit wherever it is due.

And now that I mention nuclear reactions, the stories in The Disappearing Spoon seem to be heavily weighted in that direction. I don’t think this should come as much of a surprise, especially since the discoveries involving nuclear reactions were some of the most important in their day, and those discoveries – and the technology that they helped create to make and study said discoveries – are vitally important. But I did find the content of the book a little too heavily weighted in that direction. In truth, I was rather hoping for more discussion of chemistry in relation to biology, and though there are a few chapters dedicated to that relationship, I did find it a little thin on the ground in comparison to the almost rapturous engagement Kean puts in regarding nuclear chemistry.

No true understanding of the history of chemistry can truly be attempted without understanding what actually happens in a chemical reaction, and again Kean does try to explain it in the best layman’s language he can manage. Unfortunately, I really, truly think it would have been better if he had simply used illustrations to explain what half-life is, for instance. His explanations are already heavily-reliant on imagery as it is; I do not see why he could not have used actual illustrations instead to make his point.

This, I think, also leads to problems in terms of organization – not in the overall book, but within the individual chapters themselves. Kean constantly jumps between explaining fundamentals, history, and interesting factoids, that it can get a bit dizzying after a while, trying to keep up – or, even easier, to gloss over the parts that aren’t really interesting to get to the stuff one really wants to read.

The Disappearing Spoon is a good example of what I think a science textbook ought to be: something that’s fun to read while being educational at the same time. To be fair, there’s nary an equation in sight (only one, the equation for the Uncertainty Principle, is in the book). Though the book has some organizational issues within the chapters themselves, and I feel like it could use far more illustrations than it actually has, but overall, The Disappearing Spoon is an interesting and engaging look at the periodic table, and at chemistry as a whole.

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