Tag Archives: popular science

Book: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon
The cover reminds us that a dozen rare elements are required to produce US banknotes.

Guided tours of the periodic table.
392 pages, ★★★★

War elements, star elements, biologically-important elements and political elements are among the 20 element categories in The Disappearing Spoon. Each chapter guides the reader into unexplored parts of the periodic table, where we find gadolinium, molybdenum, europium, francium, and hafnium.

The Disappearing Spoon introduces these elements with interesting stories. We learn about the true nature of Jupiter (as a failed star), Haber’s lesser-known dark side (manufacturing chemical weapons for the Nazis) and metal spoons that melt safely in the palm of your hand (at 29°C). Oddities abound.

The writing style is more intelligent—and more wit-laden—than that of Stephen Fry. Author Sam Kean’s writing style is similar in knowledge, breadth and wit to that of the legendary science writer Stephen J. Gould.

I preferred The Disappearing Spoon to Eurekas and Euphorias because the former was more interesting, and less piecemeal, than the latter. This book felt like a fascinating guided tour of chemistry, whereas the latter felt like a collection of bad jokes.

Here’s the real “disappearing spoon” in action. It’s made of gallium and melts at 29°C. You can use it to mould your own keys at home.

This, and other interesting tidbits, make this book worth reading. I’ll be recommending The Disappearing Spoon my secondary-school science students. ★★★★

Book: Science is Golden

Science is Golden
Science is Golden, and so is this book.

Freakonomics for middle-school children.
252 pages, ★★★★

Science is Golden is as informal as its cover suggests. It’s a humorous tour of science from the highly relevant (plane travel) to the highly irrelevant (black holes). Each chapter is clearly illustrated and contains no more than five pages of text.

The author not only contemplates (and subtly mocks) absurd theories about a 2012 apocalypse, and busts dozens of myths with scientific evidence, but also loads his writing with interesting facts that go beyond the original topic of each chapter. We learn about the iridescent keratin structures in peacock feathers; the difference between a meteoroid, a meteor and a meteorite, and the origin of the 40,000 tons per year that the Earth gains in mass. Most memorably, we learn about the structure and function of a spotted hyena’s clitoris. You’ll be amused and surprised.

Everything in this book is presented with calmness, balance, and undertones of fun. It touches on sex (e.g. the spotted hyena chapter), but even those parts are written in a very responsible way. The language level, fonts and cover design of this book are clearly aimed at a young-teenage age group. And I’d have no hesitations in recommending it my own science students.

Where Freakonomics is for high-school students, and Stephen J. Gould is for university students, Science is Golden is for middle school students. Let Dr Karl Kruszelnicki convince them that science is cool★★★★


Book: Stories of the Invisible

Stories of the Invisible: a guided tour of molecules
A modest cover for a modest book.

Rapid tour of the sciences, from Chemistry to Biology.
380 pages, ★★★★★

Reading this, I feel like one of those busy tourists who takes a coach-tour of 17 European countries in the same number of days.

The book’s travel plan looks like this:

  • Pure Mathematics (smallest)
  • Statistics
  • Theoretical Physics
  • Particle Physics
  • Applied Physics
  • Theoretical Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Cell Biology
  • Physiology
  • Psychology
  • Medicine
  • the Social Sciences
  • Philosophy (largest)

By reading this book, you’ll get a glorious tour of all the subjects in bold above. Equate that to dozens of stamps in your passport.

You’ll learn why spider silk becomes insoluble when it solidifies as it comes out of the spider (and thus can’t be re-constituted like dried vermicelli can). You’ll learn the history of some chemical discoveries (all of which occurred by accident). You’ll learn why bacteria can ‘swim’, and how this technology can be harnessed to make nano-robots. You’ll learn how ambiguous names such as “A-bands” and “H-zones” (in muscle sarcomeres) indicate that the discoverers hadn’t the faintest clue as to their purpose. On top of all that, you’ll even learn how nerves work (that’s physiology).

This book even dispels my two favourite high-school lies: first, that mitochondria are round (actually, they are long and blobby, like the wax that drips down the side of a burning candle); and second, that ATP has a “high-energy phosphate bond” (actually, it’s only a high-energy bond under normal cellular conditions because cells manufacture a strong intracellular disequilibrium in favour of ATP).

This book is a quick primer to Chemistry and Biology. It’s clearly-written, and big diagrams are used when necessary. I recommend Stories of the Invisible for all prospective chemistry, biochemistry, or biology students. You all have time to read it. ★★★★★