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. ★★★★
People drink wine for the same reason that I drink tea: they enjoy the feeling it gives them. Wine makes you giddy then sleepy; tea makes you relaxed but focussed. This book is a layman’s introduction to all aspects of wine (the history, production, geography, chemistry, and the culture that surrounds drinking wine). An upper-class book would pretend that the enjoyment of wine comes mostly from the taste, but Introducing Wine makes no pretensions—undertones of “isn’t it fun to get drunk?” are to be found throughout.
I knew nothing about wine and so learned a lot from this book. I learned that, like tea, there are hundreds of wines produced worldwide in both the “new” and “old” worlds. Types and tastes vary dramatically, and I was impressed by the author’s “taste wheel” diagrams on pages 13 and 18. They humble my Tea Types diagrams.
Is wine any healthier than grape juice? I still don’t know. The benefits of alcohol that the author talks about could actually be a direct result of feeling more relaxed, not of the alcohol itself. If that’s the case, then healthier forms of relaxation (e.g. exercise) could be better for your body than drinking wine. I think I’m right.
The author seems to encourage binge-drinking. I’m not blaming the author; I’m just criticising heavy-drinking culture. On page 10, he writes:
“you buy them, and you drink them, and then you buy some more. Just one taste is enough to get some people hooked for life”.
On page 59, he suggests pondering the restaurant wine menu over a glass of house wine, then ordering a second bottle after the one you ordered is finished. (Do the math: that’s binge-drinking). On page 64, he omits the word “maximum” from “recommended maximum intake” to imply that drinking 375 ml (that’s over half a bottle of wine) every day is a good idea, as if alcohol is as vital as your daily 90 mg of vitamin C. I strongly disagree.
I’m glad I don’t drink wine. I much prefer tea. Tea doesn’t need “a humidity-controlled cabinet or a purpose-built cellar installed under your house” for storage (page 67). It doesn’t give you a hangover (page 108) and it’s cheaper, healthier and more polite than wine, too. Unlike wine, tea helps you to work and relax. I much preferred The Story of Tea to this book.
Most amusingly, I learned the 3 things that constitute a “good-tasting wine”:
the packaging (fancy packaging tricks your taste-buds; that’s the placebo effect in action);
the price (the more expensive, the better it tastes; that’s the placebo effect again);
the taste itself (but only to a certain extent; most people can’t tell the difference between “good” and “very good”, especially when they’re drunk).
Introducing Wine glosses over the dangers of alcohol consumption and miscommunicates the benefits. It’s flattering of a potentially hazardous product, and I think that’s irresponsible. But that’s not really the book’s fault, since the book’s target audience (wine drinkers) would disapprove of experts saying anything else. Considering I neither like nor drink wine, three stars is very generous. Wine-drinkers, however, might give this book five. ★★★