Book review — The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Yes, yes! I know. Yet another book review. I beg apology, but you must understand that I’ve read several really good books lately and I feel the need to clear my roster somewhat. If they had been books of mediocre quality, I would be less insistent on posting something about them. Unfortunately for you, my dear reader, I have had excellent luck on selecting science and skeptic based books lately. It seems like every one I have read this year has been a virtual masterpiece of modern science writing, damn it all. Then again I must admit to carefully selecting the books I buy, so I confess to perhaps stacking the deck in favor of quality. Now, I know I should do a service to the public and start reviewing books more akin to to the shit and dross that often lies on the local bookstore shelves and warn you away, saving you from that fate. Honestly, if publishers started sending me books for free to review I would be much less selective and I would likely do my public service. As I pay for them myself with my very own blood and sweat, I am reluctant to pick things that seem less than likely to appeal to me. That and as all of you know, I have put much effort into carving out a critical niche in that gigantic work of fiction of very dubious quality, the Bible. Please allow me to intersperse items of quality and education among that cloying work of light horror contained in the Old Testament. Please! For the love of Darwin, I beg you!
So my caveat over, let’s jump right in with a bit of lavish praise. Sam Kean has put out a fantastic work of science history here. Hovering around the discovery of both the periodic table and the elements within, “The Disappearing Spoon” winds its way throughout the history of the world for the past 300 years with lighthearted deftness and agility. I do not mean to imply that this is a cursory work with little to take seriously. Like Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, this is a work of magnificent scope and bearing, and there are few areas left uncovered. From the discovery of rare earth elements in the 19th century to the creation and naming of highly unstable elements in our present, Kean takes us through the history of science with a caring and human eye. This is not a collection of dates and facts. This is a saga of real believable human beings in all their magnificence and flaws struggling against nature to wrest her mysteries from her. Being mere humans some of their struggles end poorly, some magnificently.
What I enjoy most about The Disappearing Spoon is Kean’s ability to make these near legendary figures from both our remote and recent past really come alive. This makes the science so interesting, so real. Think about this. The history of England or the history of science have one big thing in common. They are the history of real people, wonderfully flawed, with all their loves and hates, virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses. I’ve always believed in a warts-and-all approach to history, a truthful history, In contrast, this is seldom what is actually done in our schools. Education in America has a strong tendency to either canonize or demonize the people who have made the world the way it is. Do our young people really have little or no ability to understand complex characters? I do have wonder when I look around at our current political system with nearly everyone falling into the saints or sinners categories strictly depending on whether they agree with the person judging or not. But I argue that the ability to see people as both good and bad is a talent learned at an early age, a talent that must be taught in our increasingly complicated world. To teach this worldview to both young and old would be a monumental gift to us as individuals and our entire society. Humanity is seldom black and white and even is even less often interesting when it is portrayed as such. The most fascinating parts of the world are always polychromatic.
Mr. Kean shows this well. From Marie Curie to Enrico Fermi, his historical renderings bring out both affection and, I admit, a bit of contempt. His people are often beautiful in their imperfections, but be honest, aren’t most of us? Our flaws make us human. My main difficulty with heaven is all the damned perfection. Who in the hell wants to sit around with perfect people all day. Who wants to be made perfect. Life is the journey, not the destination. How dull, but this book with its flawed humanity is anything but. Captivating would be a better descriptor.
With both the science and drama rating so high, you may think that I’d give this a perfect five of five stars. But there are difficulties. The book is arranged mostly by elemental groupings, the heavy metals, the noble gases and so on. This is a sound pattern for learning the science and works well for this but for history it is not the ideal format. Since the periodic table was not discovered in any coherent chronological order, reading this as a strict history leaves one a little confused. Following the progress of just certain elements at one time, The Disappearing Spoon lunges back and forth through time with great agility often covering the same time period and the same people in several different chapters. Alas my mind is not so agile. It often stalls in the 1950′s when the book has returned to the 1920′s. Since often my reading tends to be at coffee and lunch breaks, it would take me awhile to get up to speed. It’s like the watching film Pulp Fiction only squared, but like the movie it is a fascinating romp through time. I may not remember everything but I sure the hell have been dipped in a lot. I have been exposed, and I am better for it. I understand fully that one cannot always have the best of both worlds and Mr. Kean had to make choices and while not perfect, the choices he made are very good.
Overall, I would rank this book in the top echelon of science history or either of those categories separately. This is certainly a book I will read aloud to my twelve-year-old son as part of his science curricula this year. Its that good. How about 4.5 out of five stars. That seems about right.