Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

Review by Rachel Ehrenberg

If aliens ever land on Earth, Kean writes, one of the few things humans could present that might actually be understood by the visitors is the periodic table of the elements. That observation is typical of this quirky, thoughtful and thorough book.


Remembered by many as a daunting chart looming over a teacher’s shoulder and typically “less than frickin’ helpful” on exams, the periodic table is actually a map, writes Kean, a science journalist. It is a map on which geography is destiny, a map of rivalries and antagonisms, a map that — accompanied by a guide like Kean — can take you through space and time.

From the Big Bang to ancient Greece to Nazi Germany and Gandhi’s India, Kean highlights the prominent roles of various chemical elements throughout history. He also reveals their personalities: Gold is aloof, carbon promiscuous and nitrogen an intriguing combination of “plentitude, ineptitude, and importance.”

While a map is an excellent metaphor, Kean doesn’t guide the reader region by region across the table. Instead, chapters deal with periods in history, such as the Cold War, or a particular theme, such as art or money. These broader ideas reveal how truly elemental the elements are and explain why this chemistry book appeals to nonchemists.

If your most recent glance at the periodic table was in a classroom long ago, have no fear, this book is threaded with plots more often found in love stories or thrillers than in chemistry books, and Kean’s enthusiasm and wit carry the reader through spells of heavy lifting.

Even hard-core chemists will undoubtedly learn something new. So might aliens, Kean notes: If they ever glimpse the periodic table, perhaps they’ll even “whistle (or whatever) in real admiration.”

Little, Brown and Co., 2010, 391 p., $24.99.