Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon

DNF @ Chapter 4

I think it’s fair to say that if I prefer doing office admin chores and listening to a(n albeit truly fascinating) memoir about growing up in and getting out of North Korea to reading this book, that’s a pretty good indication I won’t be getting back to this.

Chapter 4 started readable, but within 2 pages we had the next bit of arrogant nose-snubbing, at the scientist authors of one of the most groundbreaking papers in all of 20th century science writing no less, with a casual misinterpretation of two lines by Shakespeare tagged on in another asterisked footnote — and I decided I just couldn’t take it any longer.

Writerly tone aside: if I find that I can’t trust an author’s pronouncements on the bits of his book that I can instantly verify based on my own knowledge, experience and interests (e.g., European history and Shakespeare’s writing) … how can I possibly trust him on the bits that I cannot verify quite as easily and quickly?

So Huggins must regretfully record that I’m outta here as well.  I think we may seriously need to review our Flat Book Society book selection procedure …

Original post:


Prior Status Updates

31 Pages:

Well, let’s just say Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski (and that is not a good thing).

He either has no clear conception of who his target audience is, or he doesn’t know how to talk to his audience.  Someone with an average to advanced training in science obviously wouldn’t need any explanations as to the structure of the periodic table, to begin with.  The rest of us might need one — but (and it speaks volumes that I even have to emphasize this) a clearly structured one, please, not an assortment of anecdotes that blows any explanatory structure clean out of the window.  Also, if you’re writing a book subtitled (in part) “…Tales of … the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements“, wouldn’t it be a good idea to give your readers an idea when and how the periodic table itself made its first appearance in the history of the world?  Just a paragraph or so, for reference in conjunction with its basic structure, so we know where we are, both in chemical terms and the history of science?  (Ms. Czerski did just that.  But as I said … Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski.)

So far, he’s managed the feat that only one of my school teachers ever managed, and that was my physics teacher, who, like Sam Kean, presented his material full of enthusiasm as to the magic of it all, or the big joke associated with a given scientific fact / discovery, or some other reaction clearly warranted in his eyes, while completely failing to transport to the rest of us — and hence, leaving us entirely mystified — what all all of this had to do with any of us and why it was actually important (other than in a way that only the initiated would be able to appreciate).  I used to actually like chemistry in school (unlike physics), and I believed I had a fairly good grip on the subject — an impression my teachers seemed to share, judging by my grades.   A major reason for this was the fact that (unlike in physics class) I never had a moment’s doubt as to why what I was learning mattered, and how it all fitted together in the grand scheme of things.  But if I didn’t at least have this distant reservoir to rely on, I’m pretty sure I’d be entirely baffled already.  And I can only hope that this state of affairs is going to improve, because otherwise I’m either going to throw in the towel or it’s going to take me eons to finish this book (and it won’t earn a particularly high rating, either).

Original post:


63 Pages:

The fact that I actually finished chapter 3 the day before yesterday and it took BT’s first status update for me to remember to also comment on my own progress probably tells you all you need to know about the priority this book has in my reading.

Well, the good news, I guess, is that chapters 2 and 3 are actually readable.  I don’t think I’ll retain from them much more than I already knew (and chapter 2 is another example of Kean getting stuck on two elements, amplified on by way of numerous details, after setting out to make a more general point), but at least he held my attention for the duration of those two chapters, and chapter 3 also contains a historical positioning of the periodic table.  Since this is the final chapter of the introductory section of the book, I’ll retract my criticism that he didn’t give any sort of historical introduction at all.  Which however doesn’t excuse the amount of condescension and outright innuendo going on in the description of the key biographical details of the scientists whose works he is describing in chapters 2 and 3.

That said, two days have gone by and I still haven’t been able to bring myself to move on to chapter 4.  As I mentioned in my comments on BT’s status update, somehow the combination of atoms as a topic and this author’s fractured approach to narrative and explanations doesn’t portend much encouragement.  Nor does his approach to the presentation of scientific theories (psst, Mr. Kean — that’s where footnotes just might be put to good use) … or his dealings with the biographies of several eminent scientists of the past, who can actually count genuine, important discoveries among their achievements.  I’ll be on a full-day trip tomorrow, and although it will include some train travel, I don’t see myself actually taking this book.  I also don’t think I’ll be in much of a mood to touch it tomorrow night when I get back.  I guess what I’m saying is I’m still on the fence whether or not to finish this.

Original post:

3 thoughts on “Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: