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'The Disappearing Spoon' tells the story of the elements of the periodic table

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The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean


In his introduction, Sam Kean writes that as a child, he watched his mother collect the mercury from thermometers he broke. As he grew older, he learned about the uses of this element and of its toxic effects on the human body and brain. By the time he graduated with a degree in physics, he realized that each element on the periodic table has its own story—funny, sad, tragic, wondrous as the case might be. This book is a collection of those stories.

Some of the stories, such as that of Pierre and Marie Curie and the discovery of radium and polonium, will be familiar to the reader. Others, like that of Nobel Prize winner Eric Cornell prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. One tale that Kean chased involved a man who had resolved to eat a sample of each of the elements. He stopped chasing it when it proved to be a hoax.

The virtue of Kean’s writing is that he goes beyond the familiar and discusses, for example, not only the widowed Marie Curie’s scandalous (for the time) love life, but also her daughter’s achievements. A “Revigator,” a water jar lined with radium, is pictured. It was promoted as providing healthful water. The manufacturer recommended eight glasses per day. It’s unlikely anyone promote radium-infused water as “healthful” today.

A note at the back of the book describes how shortly after being awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, Eric Cornell, lost his arm to necrotizing fasciitis, often called flesh-eating bacteria. He and his partner had created the first uncontested Bose-Einstein condensate using the element rubidium.

Kean writes in a lively, light style but does not neglect the science, discussing the makeup of atoms and the orbits of electrons around atomic nuclei and why these orbits matter. The reader gets a sense of the author’s love of the subject from the beginning while he watched his mother collect the spilled thermometer mercury. This is an interesting and informative—not to mention often amusing—read. It is highly recommended.

Most of the juicy stories are told in short notes in the back of the book under “Notes and Errata.” There is also an extremely short bibliography, a reading group guide and the author’s list of suggestions for further reading.