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I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry. Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!). It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that related at all to real life. If I had a teacher like Sam Kean, however, that could have been different.

Fast forward too many years, and now I'm engrossed in this nonfiction 'memoir' of the Periodic Table of Elements. Like any good biography, this has scandal, lies, fraud, madness, explosions (!!!) and lots of name-dropping. Kean explains just what the periodic table is, but in a format that reads more like a novel, with anecdotal details to liven it up. Mercury pills were used by Lewis and Clark for their health? Yep, and you can trace their path (um, at least their bathroom trips on their journey) by where scientists have found unusually high amounts of mercury in the soil. The poet Robert Lowell? Did lithium ruin his work by making him sane? Who knew the lies and fraud and mind games played by scientists intent on getting a Nobel Prize!

There's no getting around it, this is a book that makes you think. It's not simple and it assumes you have a basic knowledge of science. Some areas were over my head, but not for long. Kean is a wonderful teacher with a sassy wise guy voice that livens up any of the deeper areas.
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on July 13, 2010
Sam Kean has written a marvelous book that will delight general readers and experts alike. The writing is crisp and sharp and includes an unusual political savyness for somebody treating scientific issues. Kean uses his journalistic skills to succeed in doing what many, perhaps most, academics fail to do when presenting the relevance of chemistry to the real world. Not just applications but also how the history of individual elements has affected the lives of ordinary people. See for example his account of niobium and tantalum. Then there are chapters that weave together the lives of famous chemists and physicists such as one on Segre and Pauling, all in the context of the discovery of elements and developments in twentieth century chemistry and physics. Technicalities are kept to a minimum and when necessary explanations are provided in a clear and lucid manner.
Everybody should read this book, period.

Dr. Eric Scerri, author of The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press, 2006.
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on August 7, 2011
This book is worthwhile, interesting overall, and fascinating in places. I think it offers a good read to intelligent persons of almost any background. However, there are a number of glib misstatements, mis-characterizations, bumbled explanations, misspellings, and outright howlers that could have been caught and corrected by an editor with an ear for inelegant phrasing and a decent breadth of general scientific knowledge (i.e., the kind of knowledge that a popular-science-book editor ought to have). A few examples:

The author writes, "The body will rid itself of any poison, mercury included", as the explanation for the efficacy of a mercuric chloride laxative pill. This is both glib and inaccurate. It smacks of that kind of knowing, breezy folk wisdom that sounds right but is misleading or false. There are many noxious substances that elicit no gastrointestinal reaction at all when ingested, as well as many substances that elicit a reaction without being poisonous. In fact, the diarrheal action of mercuric chloride does not depend on its being a compound of a poisonous element.

The enzyme tryptophan synthetase is referred to as "a relative of [tryptophan]". It is not. Tryptophan synthetase is a protein and therefore a string of amino acid molecules, while tryptophan is simply one of many amino acids . Tryptophan synthetase catalyzes some of the reactions by which tryptophan is synthesized. Although tryptophan is by coincidence a component of tryptophan synthetase, the enzyme is not "related to" tryptophan any more than to any other of its constituent amino acids.

A real howler is the description of the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter as "the first intergalactic collision humans ever witnessed." Wrong on two counts: The location was not intergalactic (occurring in the space between the galaxies, or involving more than one galaxy), but within not only our own galaxy but of course our Solar System; it should have been described as an "extraterrestrial" collision. And intergalactic collisions, those occurring between two galaxies, have been well known for decades and are easily observable, though we cannot see the action, as it were, since the movement is too slow on so vast a scale to be apparent on time scales of human history.

The author refers to Jupiter's prominent atmospheric feature informally and unconventionally as its "giant red spot" and "giant red eye", but nowhere by its common and widely recognized name, the Great Red Spot, which is how laymen, amateur astronomers, and professionals alike all know it. Using other terms in order to avoid being repetitive would be OK if he'd first referred to the feature by its universally known proper name.

In the discussion of atomic weights as given in the Periodic Table, he states that because of differing isotopic abundances, "in a different galaxy" the average atomic weights could be different. True, but not BECAUSE it's a different galaxy, as the usage implies. It would have been better to say "in a different location in space" or "in a different location in our galaxy". If, let's say, the point of a discussion is how the frost in Florida is affecting the price of the oranges we bring home from week to week, it wouldn't be relevant to say, "They cost 99 cents a pound at the market down the street, but in Australia the price might be higher or lower."

The phrase "Most solar systems probably formed from supernovae" is awkward and misleading. In the mind's eye, the phrase conjures the image of the debris clearing after a supernova explosion, revealing a star and its newborn dust cloud, ready to start forming a planetary system, or alternatively the idea that debris from a given supernova can condense somewhere else to form a planetary system. Neither of these, of course, is the case. The discussion would be improved by describing how supernovae actually do contribute to the formation of planetary systems: By synthesizing higher elements and blowing them off to enrich (but not to actually create) the interstellar medium (which consists of remnant hydrogen and helium from the formation of the galaxy), they provide the heavier material that will enable the later formation of solid stuff like planets; and their shock waves propagating through the interstellar medium trigger the condensation of areas of higher density, leading to formation of a star and its system. And, strictly speaking, the term "solar system" should be reserved for our own planetary system, the Solar System.

The author refers to the hypothesized dim star "Nemesis" as the Sun's "roaming companion star, around which the Earth circled too slowly for us to notice". This utterly baffling phraseology is partly incorrect and partly quite misleading. Nemesis would not "roam", implying a sort of meandering or wandering, but rather would move in a rigidly defined, highly eccentric (elongated) elliptical orbit around the Sun (or, rather, both would orbit their common center of mass in highly eccentric elliptical orbits). And the Earth would not orbit ("to circle", as a verb describing the Earth's motion, is neither accurate nor informally preferable to the correct verb "to orbit") the star Nemesis, of course, since Earth manifestly orbits the Sun. What would happen is that Nemesis and the Sun would orbit each other too slowly for us to notice any periodic irregularity in the path or motion of the Sun; and that (the very dim) Nemesis would spend so much of its orbital period far away from the Sun and the Earth that its existence has escaped our notice, while its 26-million-year close approaches to the Sun are what trigger disruptions in the orbits of asteroids, resulting in bombardment of Earth.

And that's only the first few chapters; I could go on, but won't.

This may seem like nitpicking, but a science book, in order to be fully worthwhile, needs to have its statements and claims factually correct and its language smooth and elegant. This book is worthwhile, and a second printing should first be reviewed and corrected by a broadly knowledgeable science-book editor with an ear for fumbled explanations and inelegant language.
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on August 15, 2010
As a professor of chemistry, I have to say I was a bit worried after reading Chapter 1 of this book. A great case study in classic misconceptions -- that there is something "satisfying" for an atom to have a complete octet, for example, or that lungs regularly deal with carbon dioxide and so "see nothing wrong with absorbing its cousin, SiO2...." or that in chemical compounds, "rings are states of high tension" just to cite a few.

But overall, it was a great read. Kean has a great sense of comic timing and is a wonderful story teller. I especially enjoyed the story of aluminum (aka aluminium), which I had never heard.

Just ignore most of the chemistry being "taught"! Start in Chapter 2.
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on December 1, 2011
As a professional chemical engineer I was immediately attracted to this title. My expectation was to gain new insights and incidental historical perspectives on the nature and discovery of the elements and related compounds. I also anticipated learning of the many benefits accrued to medicine and industry as a result of understanding the developments in chemistry. The explanations of orbitals and bonding was particularly weak and confusing. But bonding is an essential part of understanding the table of elements. The real science is poorly presented although I do believe it could have been elucidated in layman's language. Better no explanation than a faulty one. Many of the peripheral anecdotes are irrelevant and underestimate the intelligence of the reader. The editing is poor, the content sparse and largely unrelated to the actual science that it could have done so much to clarify. I hope another book in a similar and more enlightening vein is written.
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on July 21, 2012
I bought this book with a few others by Dr. Joe Schwarcz and after reading Napoleon's Buttons. This book was OK in parts and had some interesting stuff (Isaac Newton hanging an alchemist and having him disemboweled) I hadn't encountered before. What killed it was all the emphasis on subatomic particles, the "alpha" in chapter 18 and just the last 3 chapters in general were tedious and unclear. And I'm a chemistry teacher. Napoleon's Buttons is a much better book. Also, "The Alchemy of Air" about Fritz Haber was great and I think that Kean did an injustice to Haber by only talking about the chemical warfare and how he drove his wife to suicide. These were true and genuinely horrific, but not the whole story of this tortured man whose great intellect did not save him and he paid a dear price, dying alone, without a country. I would not recommend this book to my HS students.
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on July 14, 2010
I love books but only have so much time, so I'm pretty careful about what I choose to read. I heard great things about this book through word of mouth, and it didn't disappoint! Kean does a masterful job of explaining the interesting facts and stories behind the elements that make up our universe in a way that's easy to understand and fun to read. Especially for people like me, who love to learn...but maybe spent more time in high school science class shooting spitwads than actually reading our boring text books! With "The Disappearing Spoon," Kean truly makes science and history come alive--I highly recommend!
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VINE VOICEon August 3, 2010
From Sam Kean:
"I ended up with an honors degree in physics, but [...] my real education was in my professors' stories. [...] I realized that there's a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table."

Kean came to those professors already primed for their stories -- by having been fascinated to find mercury not only in the Periodic Table of science class but also in his childhood thermometers ... and in literature's mad hatter ... and in the mercury-laxative leftovers discovered in Lewis & Clark's trail of latrines.

Though I didn't keep strict track, I think Kean includes a tale for every single element in this terrific book. And while he did so, he opened my eyes to things I'd forgotten (or not ever known!!), for example:

* Chemistry is based on atoms' electrons and physics on their nuclei;
* "Alchemy" is true: every element traces back to the fusion of solar hydrogen atoms;
* The familiar Periodic Table is just one of many potential configurations of the elements, some of which are 3D;
* There are more than three states of matter;
* Our bodies don't monitor whether we're inhaling enough oxygen, only that we're exhaling enough carbon dioxide;
* Midas was real as well as fictional;
* Why sci-fi life-forms are based on silicon;
* Why Americans call it "aluminum" but it's "aluminium" to everybody else.

There's chemistry here, and physics and biology. But there's also astronomy, geology, history, politics, warfare, economics, gender studies, human ambition and inter-personal conflict. And there's a whole lotta humor. There are also dozens of entertaining and informative endnotes, suggestions for further reading, and an index. The only way to make it even better would be to read it alongside Theodore Gray's The Elements.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
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on August 8, 2010
This is five-star science writing at its best. Although the book's main theme is the periodic table of the elements - chemistry's rallying point - the scientific fields that are discussed are quite diverse. They include: various branches of physics, geology, palaeontology, biology and several others. But that's not all. The scientific discussions are blended into a backdrop of archaeology, history - from ancient through medieval to modern - as well as the occasional political and social machinations. And last, but definitely not least, the author has enriched almost every page with the ever-present, always-fascinating, often-confrontational and sporadically-baffling human element that many authors often omit.

As pointed out by at least one other reviewer, there are some technical errors; I found some in the discussions involving radioactivity and nuclear physics. But these minor shortcomings do not detract from the book's important qualities.

The writing style is very lively, friendly, often humorous/tongue-in-cheek, entertaining, widely accessible, never boring and quite captivating. In short: a page-turner. This book can be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone, especially those with a fascination for science: how it works, how some discoveries came about, some of the people involved (ancient to recent) and science's wonderful history. It is also a special treat for science buffs. I believe that this work is an important contribution towards making science understandable and fun for the general population. It may even inspire future Nobel Prize winners. To the author: well done!!
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on July 24, 2010
This book is going to join a very select group of those which I have read multiple times. There is so much fun and interesting information in this work that I suspect I will keep finding new things upon another go-around. Sam Kean has created what is truly a scientific masterpiece with this book.

Breaking up the periodic table into various sections which blend the elements into tales of science, politics, medicine, and philosophy--to name just a few--Kean pulls off the magic trick of making the dreaded periodic table exciting and interesting again. There is no shortage of future conversation-starting facts and tidbits in this book. I confess that in some parts I had to go through it rather slowly to make sure I understood what I was reading, because the breadth of the book is very impressive and roams all over physics and chemistry. But trust me when I say that I have serious doubts that anyone could have made the science more accessible than the author of this book. It may be the case that experts in some of the more esoteric areas about which he writes might quibble about over-simplification, but for the general reader, the book is a fine example of how to bring science out of its perceived shell of boredom.

This book was an absolute trifecta for me, including science, humor, and suspense wrapped up with some brilliant writing into a near-perfect package. I read it on my Kindle but am going to buy a hard copy for my library. A big thank-you to Sam Kean for such an enjoyable read.
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