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Ruth’s Reviews: The Disappearing Spoon

Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and posting her thoughts on the news blog every Friday between now and the prize ceremony on 17 November

Kean_TheDisappearingSpoon[1].JPG2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, and I have read a lot of grand claims in the past 10 months about the relevance and excitement of the field. I must confess that these claims have failed to excite me, and as such I approached The Disappearing Spoon – ostensibly a book about chemistry – with trepidation.

But Sam Keane’s enthusiasm is contagious. His awe of the elements, which developed as he regularly dropped thermometers and collected the mercury with his mother, is ever-present as he recounts the human stories behind their discovery or description.

Though the orientation in chapter one seemed technical, the author’s breathy excitement carried me through to the adventures beyond. These adventures include the race to discover and name artificial elements, which reached its peak in the Cold War; battles over mining in the developing world; and encounters with scientists and adventurers whose names we know, but whose stories we don’t.

The section on tin is prefaced by the tragic tale of Scott and Shackleton’s race to the South Pole. We meet Cooper, of Cooper pairs (those famous superconducting electrons); the man who put the Bose in Bose-Einstein condensates (that famously odd quantum matter); and delve into their work via anecdotes about their lives.

The book often mentions high school chemistry. Either I was very badly taught or my memory is far worse than I thought, but I remember little of high school chemistry. Keane’s scenic drive around the periodic table not only filled in some gaps in my knowledge but piqued my interest far more than I expected.

The Disappearing Spoon takes in the elements and their properties, chronicles discovery, adventure and ongoing saga; in short there is something for everyone here.

Previously on Ruth’s Reviews

Through the Language Glass

Alex’s Adventures in Numberland


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