The Disappearing Spoon

I’ve just finished reading The Disappearing Spoon, a book by Sam Kean about the periodic table. It’s a fun read, including such characters as the radioactive Boy Scout, David Hahn, amusing similes (a rhodium catalyst interacting with other molecules "like two obese animals trying to have sex") and the strangeness of things like the Bose-Einstein Condensate (which I can’t stop referring to as the Bose-Eisenstein Condensate, which involves great stereo headphones being cooled to absolute zero by a Russian film director).

There are some choice phrases in there; discussing the sale of tungsten during the Second World War, Kean points out that

All this naked capitalism, which benefited socialist Germany, caused apoplectic fits in the free-market United States.

Which is quite amusing, although my secondary school history education tells me a few points should be docked for equating National Socialism with, well, socialism…

Speaking of secondary school education, I remembered some things about the periodic table (mostly to do with counts of electrons) but this book gave me what feels like a better understanding of what is going on, and why some elements are much more reactive than others, and why they react in such different ways. It made it clearer to me why silicon-based life forms don’t show up as readily as carbon-based ones, and opened my eyes to the strange fashion for radium-based health drinks at the turn of the last century. In a hundred years time, I wonder what odd things people will look back at us doing, that we thought harnessed science for the good of our health.

Near the end the book loses a bit of steam, but perhaps that’s because I find any account of the platinum reference kilogram a bit dull, or at least I’m sufficiently familiar with it to render it unexciting. How jaded I must be. Certainly this would have been a good book to read before Chemistry GCSEs (although then you might not appreciate reading about obese chemicals having sex) but perhaps not good to read during Chemistry GCSEs because you wanted some escape from Science in general.

Now I’m not in full time education, of course, it’s much more enjoyable to read these books, just as Shakespeare and Fitzgerald are more readable in the fourth decade of your life than the second. And so again, I wonder what I’ll be reading in another twenty years.


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