Sunday, August 5, 2012
I used to be a chemist, but went to law school when I lost the joy of science. That was a huge mistake (I probably should have taken courses in instrumentation or looked into lab management), but 17 years later, there's not much I can do about that. I have, though regained my love of science through books like Oliver Sachs's Uncle Tungsten and Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon. Kean takes what could be a very dry topic - the periodic table - and illustrates it with a series of stories which vary from tragic (the possible suicide of the greatest chemist to have never won a Nobel prize) to the gossipy (Marie Curie's femme fatale reputation) to the simply bizarre (a kid who tried to build a nuclear reactor as an Eagle Scout project). Along the way, Kean stops to mention practical jokes (the titular spoon is made of gallium which melts in a nice, hot cup of tea), expensive pens, office politics with world-wide implications, and why several early Nobel Prizes for physics went to chemists. Science writers have to find a balance between not confusing the less-technically informed audience and not boring readers with a stronger scientific background. Kean manages the task quite well.