Review | The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean

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I’ve previously read Kean’s third book, The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, and I found it very informative and fun to read, so I was looking forward to reading The Disappearing Spoon.

At the beginning, the Disappearing Spoon was a more difficult read than Duelling Neurosurgeons, although that’s partly because I have less background knowledge about chemistry than I do about psychiatry or neurology. In comparison to Duelling Neurosurgeons, TDS is denser and more complex. While I could read a chapter of Neurosurgeons in one go and follow its major ideas and mechanics, I couldn’t do the same with TDS. Instead, I needed to stop and retrace my steps frequently to ensure I was keeping track of how new details related to previous information. (This applies most strongly to the early chapters, which focused on the chemistry knowledge needed to make sense of featured elements.)

At about 25% in, the stories switched to a more human focus, beginning with tales of the most poisonous column of the periodic table, and the people who tried to harness those poisons. From here, individual chapters became more accessible. Many different characters across various parts of 19th and 20th century Europe were included- some as one-shot characters, and others as recurring heroes or rivals (as a challenge, try to keep track of how often the University of California, Berkeley is mentioned). TDS also showed how political changes affected scientific progress and individual scientists, such as how political battles over who owned current-day Poland made Marie Curie a refugee and a political activist, and how WW2 prevented Lisa Meitner from receiving her Nobel Prize. The book shows just how international and collaborative science was at the time, while also emphasising the real-world context of the scientists and the reasons behind their discoveries. It also explained some of the scientists’ flaws; from stubbornness, to denying errors, to the (thankfully rare) times people carried out faulty or unchecked research.

The final section of TDS looked at the rules of science itself, and how some of the measurements and constants which underpin modern science were chosen. This part brought in fascinating new ideas such as superconductors and new states of matter, but also rushed through them too quickly in my opinion. Finally, the book ended back at the periodic table, discussing ways the table could change in future as new discoveries disrupt what we currently know about atoms and elements. These final few pages made a lot of sense, and wrapped up the book well. However, the rest of this section felt a little disjointed, like Kean tried to put all the cool trivia he hadn’t covered yet in one place so it didn’t go to waste.

Comparing TDS and Duelling Neurosurgeons demonstrated how Kean’s writing has developed over time. In TDS, Kean is less flashy here, in terms of how he describes people and situations. Still erudite, still fond of wordplay, alliteration, and colourful analogies, but without the bordering-on-arrogance sometimes seen in Duelling Neurosurgeons. So people who found Duelling Neurosurgeons a little too flippant would probably prefer the more straightforward tone used here. However, TDS faltered a little in terms of structure. Kean jumped from idea to idea so rapidly, and with so many layers of callbacks, digressions and call-forwards, that sometimes the patterns he tries to make clearer were instead left obscure.

Having said that, the patterns were my favourite part of TDS. Seeing how individual scientists helped, hindered, and annoyed each other, and how many scientists’ past inventions affected their future inventions, was really informative. The “great man” view of science can always do with being poked at and countered, especially now that major discoveries are almost never made by individuals, so having all these concrete examples here was helpful. Similarly, I enjoyed the stories which showed how chemistry and physics moved from being intertwined to independent. While I factually knew that the two topics used to be part of the same area of knowledge, the examples and stories helped me understand that more clearly. The one thing TDS lacks here is a way to keep the relationships between people in focus. A visual timeline of events would have been incredibly useful, or even a Wait But Why-style horizontal history approach (a nerd can hope).

Overall, I’d say that if you already have solid background knowledge about chemistry and you’re interested in the history of chemistry (or the history of science more generally) then you’ll get a lot of interesting knowledge from reading TDS. For chemistry novices, the beginning and end of TDS may be hard to follow; however, the human side of chemical history is still worth a read.

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