Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

Growing up I hated science. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that growing up I was oblivious to science. How tragic is it that we can be so unaware to something that is all around us, that is fundamental to life, from the oxygen we breathe to the ants crawling on the sidewalk to the water boiling on the stove for tonight’s pasta? And school did nothing to help me out of my scientific ignorance and apathy; in fact, it did the complete opposite -- as school is so very good at doing -- it made me see no value in science and taught me that science is irrelevant to my life. My story of science is not unique; our nation is drowning in scientific illiteracy.

It does not need to be this way. School should help us to see the wonder and power and limits of science. Going to science class should be an experience of fascination and understanding and insight and some humility. But if school science failed you, like it failed me – or if you just love science as I do now -- the good news is that there is some terrific reading on science, and one of them is Sam Kean’s new book on the periodic table of the elements, The Disappearing Spoon.

Kean explains the elements through stories. These are the stories of their discovery, experiments, politics, economics, war, personal tragedy, ambition, ego, and the horrors of genocide -- Zyklon B, the deadly gas used in the Holocaust, came from Zyklon A, created as an insecticide -- all with the science mixed in. We learn a bit about the likes of Mendeleev and Einstein and Curie and Rutherford and Fermi and many others. You can learn about carbon and beryllium and cesium and plutonium; about argon and helium and hydrogen; and how they have played tricks with gallium (a metal), shaping it into a spoon for tea, and then watching it disappear in the hot liquid because it melts at a mere 84 degrees. Some of these stories are lighthearted and humorous; others are tragic or triumphal. Even given these spots of seriousness (and adding a box on the periodic table is absolutely serious business), there is an important playfulness in The Disappearing Spoon that is missing from just about every science classroom.

If there’s a weakness in the book it would be the lack of drawings. Let’s put it this way, visualizing an atom is hard. Hey, they’re really small. You’ve got protons and neutrons and electrons and the nucleus, and yet, the vast majority of that atomic real estate is empty space. So for us visual people, a few drawings on what that looks like for different elements would have helped, as well some of the scientific concepts, such as the nearly unfathomable notion of atoms borrowing electrons from other atoms. And not all of the science explanations fully succeed, in part because they're brief, which is both good and bad. So some drawings could really help a reader understand these ideas.

But The Disappearing Spoon is a fast read (especially for a book on science) that opens up the invisible and helps us to appreciate the beauty of the periodic table and the passionate pursuit of so many men and women to understand the natural world. As I read this book I was constantly reminded that our lives really are directed every second of every day at the atomic level. And if you want to couple this book with a virtual periodic table, well… there’s an app for that: I downloaded Theodore Gray’s “The Elements” onto my iPad. Very cool.

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