Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

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

Now, if you’re as big of a chemistry nerd as I am, the title alone is enough to get you to throw off your lab coat and goggles to sit down with the book. But even if you’re not, the book is full of compelling, interesting, and even funny stories that just so happen to be center around the elements on the periodic table. There were many great things in this book – I just want to highlight a few.

The thing that I loved most about this book is that it does a lot of name dropping. I don’t mean name dropping the traditional sense of self-importance, but rather giving a more diverse and colorful depiction of the players involved in the development of chemistry as a science. As and undergraduate physics and chemistry major, I remember hearing the names of countless “fathers” of science because of some major breakthrough they made or some formula that carries their name: Fermi, Lewis, Rutherford, Bose, Crookes, Meitner, Pauling, et al. What I loved in the book was getting a more humanistic view of the “fathers” through the stories of their interactions, confrontations, struggles, and of course, discoveries. I am fascinated with the history of chemistry* and find it extremely compelling to learn more about these names with which I am so familiar.

The other thing that I absolutely loved about the book was that it presented the difficult subject matter (theoretical chemistry and physics) and explained it in a way that was intelligent without being textbook-ish, and described the science in the stories to a level that someone with a basic knowledge of chemistry would have no problem understanding – without being overly simple.

I will definitely be doing all that I can to use these stories in my own chemistry class, and hope that my students find them as exciting and interesting as I have!