'The Disappearing Spoon' - Book Review

The Disappearing Spoon: And other true tales of madness, love, and the history the world from the periodic table of the elements
by Sam Kean
2010, 394p.

This was recommended to me by a friend who knew I was a fan of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - which I described as "about the history of the universe, the history of the sun, solar system, the earth, and the species on it - and the state of our knowledge about all these things" - it covers a lot of ground. But what I enjoyed most about it was the tales of the personalities involved: they're not quite the mad scientists you see in movies, but the world's greatest scientific thinkers are often some of our strangest humans. Sam Kean has, with this book, gone for a similar formula describing our state of knowledge of matter, the periodic table, and the people who made it what it is today.

The title comes from what I guess Kean knows is the funniest story in the book: Gallium is a silver metal very similar in appearance to Aluminium (see my minor rant about Aluminum/Aluminium below), with a notably odd property. It melts at 29.7°C. The gag some scientists came up with was to make spoons out of Gallium, and give their guests a cup of hot tea into which they would stir milk or sugar. A lot of people tend to think of Mercury, but Gallium is non-toxic.

That that's the funniest story in the book outlines the book's biggest problem: it's not as funny as Bryson. Bryson is a comic writer, and he had a much wider range of stories to choose from. He could draw on pretty much all of science, whereas Kean was limited to the scientists associated with the discovery of the elements. Don't get me wrong, this is a good book and I enjoyed it - it just suffers in comparison to Bryson's - which was epically memorable.

The book covers the process of the discovery of the elements and the people involved, the structure of the periodic table, how the science of elements has changed, and the bleeding edge of that science at the time he finished the book.

After reading this book, I'm going with "Aluminium" as my spelling and pronunciation of that element. We think of "Aluminium" as "the British spelling," but in fact "Aluminum" is the American spelling - and an advertising one at that. "Aluminium" is in fact the correct spelling and pronunciation (although per my discussion of the mutation of language, it's possible "Aluminum" will win anyway).