Pairing Books with Movies: The Disappearing Spoon

Friday, July 26, 2013

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

Chemistry has never been my thing. I hated it in high school (except for the part where we melted mechanical pencils over the Bunsen burner). Recently watching the chemistry Crash Course episodes has reminded me that chemistry is not just the boring science class I struggled to stay awake through in high school. Chemistry is everything around us and understanding a bit about it will help me better understand the way the world works.

So I picked up The Disappearing Spoon with that in mind and was richly rewarded. Kean’s writing style was fun and made the subject matter interesting. He talks not only about the science behind each element, but about the scientists who discovered them and the impact they had on the world.

For example Mendeleev, who is credited with creating the Periodic Table, had a fascinating start. He was born in Siberia, the youngest of 11 children. His father died when he was only 13 and his mother worked incredibly hard to give him the chance to go to school. Imagine having to overcome all of those things just to be able to go to school!

Another favorite of mine was Marie Curie. Her fascinating life, including a marriage that was far ahead of its time and the discovery of multiple elements was so interesting. She won a Nobel Prize in a time when women in America weren’t even allowed to vote. I would love to a biography that focused solely on her (tell me if you have read a good one!)

The periodic table has changed the world in both positive and negative ways. Kean doesn’t shy away from the damage that’s been done because of the discovery of a new element. He talks about the effects of vaccinations and medicines and also at the way chemistry made things like the atom bomb possible. When cell phones became wildly popular in the 1990s the fight to find more of the metal used to create them caused the Congo to explode with fighting. People were in a frenzy to provide the metal that was in such high demand.

“Overall more than 5 million people have died in Congo since the mid-1990s, making it the biggest waste of life since World War II. The fighting there is proof that in addition to all the uplifting moments the Periodic table has inspired it can also play on humankind's worst, most inhumane instincts.”

This balanced look at the Table reminds us that with great knowledge (just like great power) comes great responsibility. Almost any scientific advance can be used for good or bad and there will always be a struggle to use it correctly.

BOTTOM LINE: The most interesting book I’ve read ever read about chemistry and one that kept me intrigued the entire time. We live in a truly remarkable world and I’ll never regret reading a book that opens up a new corner of that world to me.  

Pair with a viewing of the complete list of Hank Green’s Crash Course show on chemistry. There’s also a 1943 movie called Madame Curie, but I can’t find a copy of it anywhere so I have no idea if it’s any good. 

*Image from Crash Course 


Heather said...

Obviously I need to try this book again! I was sort of enjoying it, but not really feeling a pull to pick it up. I think it was a timing thing.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Heather - That's too funny. Last year I read the first few chapters of this. It wasn't working for me, so I put it down and just got back to it.

Andi said...

Heather has been reading this one and tempting me. Temptress Heather. And now you!

Nikki Steele @ said...

I love sciency books, especially those that get into the private lives of (what can be) some kooky scientists! Sounds fascinating.

I also looove John Green's literature crash course, but don't let myself watch it because there's so much there and I know I'll start watching it and there will go my day :D

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Andi - Well if all the cool kids are doing it...

Nikki - Isn't Crash Course fantastic! The chemistry one is interesting, but it's the literature and history episodes that I truly love. Such a wonderful resource!

Belle Wong said...

I really liked The Disappearing Spoon, too, but I hadn't heard of Crash Course before. It looks interesting!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Belle Wong - Start watching Crash Course! ... your day just disappeared!

Captain Nick Sparrow said...

Watching Breaking Bad makes me want to take a chemistry class (not to make meth, just because it's interesting) so instead I've been reading 30-Second Elements: The 50 Most Significant Elements, Each Explained in Half a Minute by Eric Scerri. I feel like the lessons are a little too brief so maybe I would like your book better.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Captain - Yes! I love Breaking Bad. I think this one has a bit more depth so you might enjoy it.