The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from The Periodic Table

Sam Kean is not a chemist, and he seems to have had little help from a chemistry-literate editor in writing this collection of stories about most of the elements of the periodic table. To a certain extent, his chatty and colloquial style helps to bring chemistry to an audience that is science-phobic (the c-word does not appear in the title or subtitle, presumably for this reason). On the other hand, he has thrown together a bunch of anecdotes without much regard for their credibility and many of the analogies he uses to explain science are mis-aimed. For example, when describing how atomic clocks work, Kean says that cesium atoms play the role of the mainspring of a clock or watch. In fact, they are analogous to the balance wheel or the pendulum. He says that lithium batteries in a pocket full of change can short out, causing a dangerous amount of heat. This is said to be a result of the reactivity of lithium. Well, that is sort of true. But a mercury battery can be shorted the same way, with the same result, despite the fact that mercury is not known for its reactivity. Describing Pasteur's work on the chirality of tartaric acid, he claims that a beam of light from a vertical slit shone into a solution of one of the isomers will deviate away from its original orientation. Intrepid experimentalists who try this will be disappointed, and those who merely read about it will have swallowed a serious misconception. It was frustrating to me that he republished the story of the Radioactive Boy Scout (Hal's Pick of October, 1998), dressing it in scientific respectibility. Kean's organization of the book is idiosyncratic, to say the least ("Elements of War", "How Elements Deceive", and equally uninformative chapter titles), and his descriptions of elemental properties are very often confused with those of their compounds. Kean also does not understand the difference between monochromaticity and coherence as laser properties. Despite its many, many shortcomings, chemistry teachers may find "The Disappearing Spoon" to be a useful collection of anecdotes, but caveat emptor.

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Comments 2

Hal Harris's picture
Hal Harris | Thu, 06/27/2013 - 12:04

I am disappointed that the ACS has implicitly endorsed the content of this book by making it the subject of a Webinar scheduled for 6/27/2013.  It has become a popular book on chemistry, but its numerous flaws should prevent such ACS-sponsored notoriety.

Melanie Anastasio's picture
Melanie Anastasio | Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:55
This book expertly describes the history of chemistry. I have told several stories to my students that came from this source. As always, a good story excites and engages students.