Science journalist deftly brings to life the periodic table of elements.
REVIEWED BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
For the Miami Herald
Imagine you’re taking a course encompassing the history of the world, madness, love, politics, rivalry and alchemy as seen through the periodic table of elements. Unless you’re a straight-A science geek, you’ll want a teacher who enlivens even the most tedious subjects by relating material to everyday life in everyday language and who exhumes juicy backstories about experiments and the people performing them.
Science Magazine reporter Sam Kean is that sort of teacher, and his new book is precisely this sort of wild but approachable course, with undeniably sharp science teeth.
The book tethers tales of carbon, silicon and the like to set themes and genres yet its information-packed chapters are infused with a sometimes directionless ebullience. Kean, who graduated with honors in physics, maintains “there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table,” which he sees as “both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook.”
He jumps gleefully from one story to the next, confident in exactly how all the details fit. His writing is easy to follow when the stories are woven with intriguing characters and moments in history, such as Marie Curie and her scandalous reputation or the origins of chemical warfare. He’s also adept at providing fun facts such as what causes the eponymous spoon’s disappearance. His conversational prose sizzles with pop culture references to such items as iPods and Pepto Bismol, and he provides surprisingly informal analogies, such as calling the castle-like periodic table “a gigantic and fully sanctioned cheat sheet” and likening atom-molecule collision to “two obese animals trying to have sex.”
Elements are also daringly personified, from Kean’s beloved “cultish” and “alluring” mercury, which also helped archaeologists track down Lewis and Clark’s campsites, to independent and erotic helium, aloof gases, and that “black sheep” germanium. In these moments, Kean’s is the one class you can’t wait to show up for.
But the book isn’t entirely breezy and fun, particularly when the science gets more complex and the explanations more detailed and lengthy. Kean works to dissect intricate physics and chemistry, such as quantum mechanics or radioactive decay, into layman’s terms, but these sections produce the unpleasant sensation of cramming an entire semester course in one sitting (while fully expecting to fail). Fellow science geeks need not worry, but lest others be tempted to skip these details, plan on digesting Kean’s ode to the periodic table over time. Indeed, a semester might be an ideal schedule.
The detection of elements and their relevance in our lives is far from dead: the most recently discovered, copernicium, was added to the table in 2009, and europium is a modern anticounterfeiting tool. Kean’s palpable enthusiasm and the thrill of knowledge and invention the book imparts can infect even the most right-brained reader.