Nonfiction

The Disappearing Spoon

I picked up and then passed by this audiobook at least 6 times before actually deciding to go for it. It sounded so interesting – talking of love and madness and myth all related to the periodic table. But I have never been a science person, and I was particularly less interested in physics and chemistry, so I was a little nervous. However, off the top of my head I can think of a couple crazy stories about gold, lithium, uranium, and all are pretty crazy and interesting, so I was guessing there’s be some good stuff included. Plus, I’m always down to learn (and hopefully this book would be a little less overwhelming than AP Chem). And so I finally plucked up my mental “courage” and talked myself into trying it.

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

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I honestly cannot decide how I want to talk about this book. I think, to start, I’d like to just get it out there that I did enjoy it. It moved along smoothly and quickly, did a great job building on itself (and was self-recognizing enough to remind you of things you read/learned earlier, because it was a lot of information and it comes at you fast), and truly kept my interest. It’s a wonderful overview of many concepts and, while I’m sure the people that study these topics hate this kind of oversimplification of their life’s work, I felt a great line was walked between explaining enough to make things more understandable but not so much as to re-confuse or lose the reader. On the flip side, even with that there were a few concepts that I think still went over my head (perhaps because I was listening to the audiobook and couldn’t go back to re-read a section that was particularly dense or that I lost my train of thought during.) And in general, this was definitely a more intensive read than I was anticipating. The subtitle, “and other true tales of madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements” definitely, I felt, made the book sound much lighter than it ended up being. Similar to My Own Words (by the Notorious RBG), I am glad that I listened to this instead of read it. With books that are as in depth and informationally intensive (even though they both still have entertainment value beyond straight textbook education) as these, I think I would have gotten bogged down in the reading…having the audiobook version to keep things moving along was ideal.

As far as what was covered, there were definitely some stories along the lines of what I was anticipating – things like backstabbing scientists, Midas and his “golden touch,” lies and faked studies used to try and get ahead, and the titular story about spoons made from certain elements so that they would dissolve upon being used (big jokers, those scientists). And I truly love those parts. But more than that, this was essentially a story of world history told within the context of the periodic table. From the race to discover (and create) new elements to the way certain elements were used/combined to make stronger and worse weapons war to war to the politicization of scientific process, cooperation, discovery and naming of elements. It is also a mini primer on the basics of chemistry and physics (and the large to almost nonexistent differences between the two when it comes to work on the periodic table), from what all the numbers on the table mean and do to how elements interact and break down to the myriad ways they have been and are used (for good and evil and everything in between). The book then extends beyond that, into topics like the basic ideas behind particle theory, quantum mechanics, and more. Plus, it even jumps into some even more theoretical science, discussing things like the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Although some of those moments got a bit dry, the author kept explanations of each piece reasonable and in short order you were onto the next element/story/theory.

Straight up, this book was like the intro level course for those who want to act like they know about what the characters on The Big Bang Theory are talking about. And I do love that show. I learned (or possibly re-learned, in some cases) a ton of information. And like I said earlier, it would be a lie to say I didn’t like this book – it was, for the most part entertaining and super interesting. However, it was a much more complex, mentally taxing, science-y (even if that sounds dumb, that’s how I feel) reading experience than I was anticipating. That’s probably no one’s fault but my own, and my personal conclusions drawn, but I definitely want to let anyone else who might try reading this: go in with the right mindset, because you’ll definitely need it. Otherwise, enjoy it and go learn some stuff!

*Note on the narrator – his voice was amazing, but possibly too soothing for a book of this density. A few times I found myself having zoned out a little while listening to him (it was so calming!). Maybe that’s just a me issue, not a book/audiobook issue, but I felt it was worth mentioning, just in case anyone else knows they may have a problem with that.

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