Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review: The Disappearing Spoon

It's been a long time since I read a book as fun as 'The Disappearing Spoon (and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of Elements' by Sam Kean. It's one of those magnificent polymathic books that flits madly from topic to topic, sometimes a history book and sometimes a science text, occasionally taking in a bit of economics and psychology and literature along the way as it covers the way that the elements define us.

Not just literally, although there's certainly some of that--Kean devotes entire chapters to poisons, how they work and how they've been used and how they've shaped our culture and history--but how the struggle to define the periodic table and to understand the elements of our universe is ultimately the human struggle. It incorporates politics--the very names of elements like Berkelium and Californium are at the heart of a Cold War race with the Russians to find the rarest and least stable elements--and art, economics and the biographies of some of our greatest minds. It's filled with amazing triumphs of the human intellect and astonishing depths of the human soul, a quest for understanding the very universe itself by understanding its fundamental building blocks.

All of which is great in and of itself, but Kean brings those stories to life in vivid, elegant prose. Every chapter is filled with tiny, brilliantly-linked anecdotes that are entertaining and informative in their own right, but which combine to fascinate the reader for hours. The sheer variety and profusion of cleverness on display is magnificent--there are pieces on the cold fusion debacle, on Japanese pollution crises, on Australian gold rushes and the life-cycles of stars, with none of them seeming out of place. The story of the elements is the story of everything, after all. There's nothing it can't encompass.

In case I'm not making myself clear, this is a wonderful diversion of a book. It teaches without boring, it entertains without being a mindless diversion, and it's well-written on every level. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

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