Reading Sam Kean

Did you ever watch that show Connections with James Burke? I saw a lot of random episodes with my Dad when I was growing up.  I knew I wanted to be a writer but had no idea I might ever want to be a scientist – or if I was smart enough. But I loved that show. You can watch a few episodes from Series 3 on youtube but I remember the first series best – those grainy pre-Instagram images, Burke in his bellbottoms, science history from alternative perspectives – well, all that’s still relevant, yeah? Anyway – I’m reading the books of Sam Kean right now. Devouring them, I should say. I got them all through my library’s ebook borrowing system, Overdrive. Easy and free – I’m sure your library has Overdrive too. I wonder if there’s anything about digital lending libraries of the future in one of those old Connections episodes? Kean’s way of coming at science from anecdotal and often erratically nonlinear angles reminds me a bit of Connections.

I just tackled The Disappearing Spoon. It’s subtitled And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the Periodic Table. Yes – the periodic table of the elements, that boring old thing. I got a C in high school Chemistry. It was the worst grade I ever received in school until the nightmare that was college PreCalculus. C!!! Devastating (Back then; now, who cares? I should have partied more.) but I know why I got a C. Because that class was excruciatingly difficult and equally as dull. The only enjoyable part of Chemistry class was mocking the way our teacher demonstrated how to pour liquids into a beaker.

The Disappearing Spoon is far from boring. Believe me when I say that the periodic table of the elements – the history of its design; the elements themselves; the humans who discovered and studied these building blocks of the universe – is thrilling, strange, and shocking! I found myself forgoing social activities in order to stay home and read this book! It’s like taking a virtual tour of reality and experiencing how freaky-weird reality is, without drugs. I appreciated Kean’s inclusion of etymology, urban myths, humorously conversational tone, and FOOTNOTES. I adore footnotes, and Kean’s do not disappoint – so frequently does he provide those extra little crunchy nuggets to chew on. (Although in the Kindle app on my iPad it’s aggravatingly difficult to tap the teensy weensy asterisk link that takes you to the footnotes page; I felt like I was playing a game every time – and losing – but I liked it!).

My favorite anecdotes range from poor dear poet Robert Lowell’s lithium “cure” to the ruthenium nibs of the world’s best pen to the Bartlett Mountain molybdenum mine in Colorado – there’s so many I need to read the book again. My brain is a sieve…a fun sieve…but still made of holes… or bubbles? Man, the section on bubble science alone in this book was worth buying it instead of borrowing – we go from Donald Glaser’s atomic beer gun to the calcium coves of the English coast to culinary meringues and a scientist who liked taste-testing his own foamy pee! Oh hell yes, bring the crazy, Sam Kean. And that doesn’t even include Ernest Rutherford, zirconium, fluid dynamics, sonar, the calculation of the age of planet Earth, and perhaps most importantly, Mentos and Diet Coke froth-geysers.

Here’s my own (not really Burke-y) connection: just as I finished reading The Disappearing Spoon, I watched Einstein and Eddington. It’s a lovely, poignant film starring two of my favorite actors, Andy Serkis and David Tennant, as the titular scientists. I didn’t realize how much I’d learned from Sam Kean’s book until I began to recognize certain individuals I’d just read about – like Fritz Haber and his deadly legacy of poison gas and explosives, all stemming from his work on nitrogen fertilizers. And of course Sir Arthur Eddington himself, the Quaker who was the first to experimentally prove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity during the solar eclipse of 1919. Never has a cinematic eclipse been so captivating to me. There’s also a most exciting dinner table demonstration of spacetime curvature! (Though I do believe the script has John Wheeler’s words coming out of Eddington’s mouth in this scene.) Anyway, I highly recommend the movie (it’s on HBOnow right…now).

You might think I’ve abandoned My Darwin Project, but in truth it’s just expanding – as I hoped it would. Sam Kean’s books were a great find for me – I am stumbling across all kinds of books and articles and films along this path. And even returning to some long ago abandoned trails – I swear I’m going to finish The Song of the Dodo before the end of the year. After I read two more Sam Kean books.


“Myspace-rück” by h.muller – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

Be First to Comment

What's on your mind?