September 16, 2011

All of Science, one little-bitty Table

The Disappearing Spoon
Sam Kean
Non-Fiction-History of the Periodic Table

Let me start off with a disclaimer: I do not often read non-fiction. I'm a story loving kind of girl, I like beginnings, conflicts, revelations, and resolutions. Non-fiction isn't really like that. The author can have a great sense of humor and be extremely knowledgeable about the material (and this one is), but by about three quarters the way in, man, it starts dragging. This is a personal taste, and it is true of every non-fiction book I've ever read, just sayin'.

The periodic table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow all the elements on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. The Disappearing Spoon masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the big bang though the end of time.

I was intrigued by the concept of this book since it's hardcover release in 2010, but I wasn't willing to dish out the $25 bucks to get it, so I held out for paperback. From the description on the back (above) I almost expected a series of separate short stories documenting anecdotes of each element that would intrigue a reader and hold literary merit, but it's just a typical novel-esque non-fiction book. It is told in a series of chapters, each dealing with several elements and usually a shared subject matter.

If you are interested in reading this book, but don't have much of a science background (as I, myself, do not), don't worry. Kean explains everything. If you pick up on things quickly, you will understand everything that happens in this book. Myself, I got a little iffy around the 'going nuclear' portion of chemistry...the radiation and nuclear reactions. That's not to say Kean didn't explain it, my brain just wasn't completely invested as I read over those sections. But unless you took lots of chemistry or physics (even biology or astronomy) classes, prepare to learn something when you pick this one up.

I really enjoyed this book. Probably what interested me the most was the chapter on the universe, the disbursement of elements in the world, and the scientific processes of finding out things you'd think are absolutely impossible. I loved how in depth Kean got into everything. For example, he not only figured out the longest word ever printed, he also found the theoretically longest word ever, and counted the letters and pairs of letters to note their occurrences. This guy did some serious research. In every chapter there is at least five other books referenced in the back of the book, in case you're looking for more information about a particular subject, just to read for fun. 

One thing I thought was interesting about this book: it's about the history of the periodic table, the author even describes his annoyance that science textbooks everywhere have all clung to one version (shape) of the table, and yet in this book, the ONLY periodic table published anywhere in it, is a very simple version of the traditional 'castle' table, and it is in the very back of the book after even the index.

I mentioned before getting bored in the second half of this book. This isn't because The Disappearing Spoon wasn't just as interesting and informational as the first half, but because of my conditioning as a fiction junkie, I kept expecting some sort of a climax or even just a bit of a falling off of information, but the truth is, history isn't like that; it's always happening, we are always creating it, and always analyzing it and learning from it.

This book is an excellent addition to every library, if only because what it says is the truth. Any time in your life you can pick up this book, look for a certain element you are interested in, and learn many of it's properties in an interesting way. This book fueled a conversation with my boyfriend that lasted the entire trip to Denver (an hour and a half), one of those I'll-be-thinking-about-this-for-days-trying-to-solve-the-mystery-of-the-universe conversations that make life so sweet. This book would also make a great gift. Perhaps not everyone is all that interested in science, but I think there are great benefits in learning about how the world around you works, how WE work, for that matter. If you've never read a non-fiction book, this wouldn't be a bad one to start on, if you hold some interest in the subject. That is the thing about non-fiction though, if you don't care about what you're reading about, you might as well stop, because it's just going to be more of the same...the whole time, until it's all told. I have three other non-fiction books on my shelves waiting to be read, but I may wait awhile before pulling them down.


Ash said...

I think this looks really good and I've thought about reading it a few times before--I just have so many books I want to read right now! Not all nonfiction is as you described, although a lot it. Have you tried memoir at all? Some are very good about climax and so on. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has a pretty good plot, The Professor and the Madman does as well though the writing is a little dry. You also might enjoy travel writing which has a lot of ups and downs. I wouldn't push nonfiction away just yet--there is some really great narrative out there!

Emma said...

I didn't even think of memoirs! I LOVE memoirs. My Sergei was my first one and I cried like a baby at the end, some of them really make you cry, don't they? Since then, I always skim the biography/autobiography sections to see if they have anything I'd be interested in.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last year, and I liked that too, but it just didn't capture me the way that fiction does. I did learn a lot though, about biology and the history of medicine. Another book that brings out the horror of early medicine practices is The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen, it's fiction, but she did a lot of research and incorporated it in the book.

The other few books I have of informational non-fiction that I'll be reading sometime is Spice: The History of Temptation and Salt: A History of the World. Both intrigue me, but I think I'll have to be reading a fiction book on the side ;-)

Also, thanks for reading!

Steven E. Belanger said...

Memoirs are great. Read Lit and the other Mary Karrs.