The Skimmer

Book review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

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The Disappearing Spoon

By Sam Kean

Little, Brown; 391 pages

When it comes to the periodic table--that bane of many a high school student's existence--some of us, well, react negatively. But, as writer Sam Kean reveals in his debut book, those infernal boxes are packed with their share of entertaining stories. His survey spans continents and galaxies alike, billions of years and individual lifetimes. Marie Curie is on the scene, and so is a man who ran for the U.S. Senate "despite being startlingly blue." (Drinking silver-infused water can do that to you.) Some subjects have more dramatic force than others--the Manhattan Project is more compelling than the author's mother's hip replacement--but then, that's partly Kean's point: the elements are relevant on every scale. And while mind-blowing phenomena like the Bose-Einstein condensate may trip up general readers, Kean manages to make much of the science behind the periodic table accessible. The Disappearing Spoon might even serve as a catalyst in converting some chemistry-phobes. As for the magical utensil? Look to gallium. A spoon made of element 31 will vanish in a cup of hot tea. Pretty cool.