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

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the ElementsThe 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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Checking off one from my far too many (just kidding…one can never have too many books to read) Small Stacks of Found Books that I kept setting aside for others, this is in one word a delight! Mr. Kean has done something marvelous here: making the periodic table fun and accessible! For science geeks (and professionals) it always has been, but for those less inclined…this is great.He says in his Introduction that from the one element mercury, he “learned history, etymology, alchemy, mythology, literature, poison forensics, and psychology.” He also learned physics and chemistry, clearly, because it’s all through this book, and politics that sometimes had play in the field. And Kean conveys the history and concepts in the best mystery page-turner style, along with humor and sagacity. Even if you know the history and concepts, the chemistry and physics (I’m not a neophyte to either), I suspect you’ll learn something or somethings.

Kean talks of the discoveries of the elements (and many of the gaffes), the origins of the table, the blanks and how they were filled. He delves into the biological interactions of some of the elements, from poisons to medicines, and how some elements mimic others, causing all kinds of havoc on the biological front. There is the politics of the Nobel prizes, the currency of elements, art and literature of elements. Something as seemingly simple as the Parker 51 pen gets copy time here, as the nibs were made of “durable ruthenium”, “an element little better than scarp until then.”

Near absolute zero, bubble chambers, “Tools of Ridiculous Precision”…there is so much information here. I couldn’t begin to summarize with any justice. I’ll share one nugget to illustrate Kean’s keen science. (Forgive, please!) There’s a chapter on toxicity of exposure (or ingestion) and a GREAT observation I flagged. Great to me, anyway. In talking about William Crookes, his “lapse into spiritualism”, and succumbing to “pathological science”, Kean explains pathological science:

In explaining what pathological science is, it’s best to clear up any misconceptions about that loaded word, “pathological,” and explain up front what pathological is not. It’s not fraud, since the adherents of a pathological science believe they’re right – if only everyone else could see it.

(And here’s the gem…

It’s not pseudoscience, like Freudianism and Marxism, fields that poach on the imprimatur of science yet shun the rigors of the scientific method.

Love it! Pseudoscience! I’ve been saying so for years!

It’s also not politicized science, like Lysenkoism, where people swear allegiance to a false science because of threats or a skewed ideology. Finally, it’s not general clinical madness or merely deranged belief. It’s a particular madness, a meticulous and scientifically informed delusion. Pathological scientists pick out a marginal and unlikely phenomenon that appeals to them for whatever reason and bring all their scientific acumen to proving its existence.

Kean says that a pathological science’s “believers use the ambiguity about evidence as evidence – claiming that scientists don’t know everything and therefore there’s room for my pet theory, too.”

Read it. Highly recommended.

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