Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Disappearing Spoon

Fourth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
I ended up with an honors degree in physics, but [...] my real education was in my professors’ stories. [...] I realized that there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table.
Kean came to those professors already primed for their stories -- by having been fascinated to find mercury not only in the Periodic Table of science class but also in his childhood thermometers ... in literature’s mad hatter ... and in the mercury-laxative leftovers discovered in Lewis & Clark’s trail of latrines.

Though I didn’t keep strict track, I think Kean includes a tale for every single element in this terrific book. And while he did so, he opened my eyes to things I’d forgotten (or not ever known!!), for example:

• Chemistry is based on atoms’ electrons and physics on their nuclei;
• "Alchemy" is true: every element traces back to the fusion of solar hydrogen atoms into helium;
• The familiar Periodic Table is just one of many potential configurations of the elements, some of which are 3D;
• There are more than three states of matter;
• Our bodies don’t monitor whether we’re inhaling enough oxygen, only that we’re exhaling enough carbon dioxide;
• Midas was real as well as fictional;
• Why sci-fi life forms are based on silicon;
• Why Americans call it “aluminum” but it’s “aluminium” to everybody else.

There’s chemistry here, and physics and biology. But there’s also astronomy, geology, history, politics, warfare, economics, gender studies, human ambition and inter-personal conflict. And there’s a whole lotta humor. There are also dozens of entertaining and informative endnotes, suggestions for further reading, and an index. The only way to make it even better is to pair it with Theodore Gray’s The Elements.

Get started by taking a look at the disappearing spoon of the title.

Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher

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