The Disappearing Spoon and What If? Book Review

The Disappearing Spoon is perhaps one of the best science books I have ever read. Scientific, or in general nonfiction, literature can be a chore to get through if the voice is textbook-like or if the book is just too dense. But Sam Kean does an amazing job in his bestseller book as its content is great and his writing style makes it seem like he’s actually here talking to me

The Disappearing Spoon highlights the elements and their respective Periodic Table’s wacky history. It’s amazing how Sam Kean can take almost every element on the Periodic Table and highlight how they affected the history of mankind. From the lonely scientist eager to discover a new element to elemental weaponization in war after war.

The book is filled to the brim of clever and humorous short stories of elements that have deceived, maddened, helped, and even killed people throughout the world. These stories are perfect for the person who wants to read a passage or two before doing something else. In fact, that’s why it took me so long to finish the book despite its engrossing nature. I wouldn’t have to worry about plot or overall connecting themes, I can just enjoy the book for what it is.

My favorite story is the devaluation of aluminum. Aluminum was once one of the most valued elements on Earth, even more so than gold. To show off the U.S.’s economic strength, engineers capped off the recently built Washington Monument with a six-pound pyramid made of aluminum. Quite impressive indeed. But in the 1880s, scientists figured out how to separate aluminum oxide into pure aluminum. It was easy to do so in fact. So easy that the value of aluminum plummeted in the market fairly quickly leading to its widespread occurrence to this day.

Sam Kean passages also got me thinking about the wonders of chemistry. One passage was so intriguing that I could not stop wondering about it. While talking about the periodic table general, Sam Kean jokes that it represents a very oddly shaped castle. Going further with this analogy he proclaims “Overall, if each brick was made of the substance it represented, the castle of the elements would be a chimera with additions and wings from incongruent eras, or, more charitably, a Daniel Libeskind building, with seemingly incompatible materials grafted together into an elegant whole.”

Sam Kean continues on talking more about the Periodic Table in detail but he leaves us hanging with this provoking analogy.

What would a real life Periodic Table be like?

Think about it.   All the elements coming together in small cubes, directly touching each other through intimate contact. Who would react with whom? What would the end result be like?

Many seemingly reasonable answers came to my head. The noble gasses would float away and not react with anyone same with hydrogen. Fluorine will throw a hissy fit and make all the elements around it a living hell. Mercury would spread out due to its liquid form and cause all the elements sitting above it to collapse on top of it. Beyond that though, I couldn’t safely say. I’m a paleontologist with only a basic understanding of chemistry. I wanted someone with an appropriate background to answer this question. But who?

I got The Disappearing Spoon for Christmas 2012. Earlier that year, Randall Munroe, author of the famous webcomic xkcd, had started a new project outside of xkcd called What If where he answered extremely kooky what if questions. You can find the full list of these questions here He encouraged his fanbase to send him questions for him to answer.

I loved this and wanted to send in my own but I wanted it to be a good one.

This good question came to me while reading The Disappearing Spoon via the Real Life Periodic Table.

Believing that I got myself a good question, I sent him the question.

No response.

I wasn’t surprised, he probably gets a lot of questions every day and he has to comb through his constantly growing inbox. I didn’t want to pester him so I didn’t resend the question until June 2013.

Still no response.

One of the unspoken rules of society is that if you text an acquaintance twice and they don’t respond, chances are they don’t want anything to do with you. At this point I guessed my question wasn’t good enough so I gave up. I would check every week though on his website, hoping that my question would get answered.

Then, last May, I got an email from Randall Munroe saying he wanted my question in his upcoming What If book!

I was stunned.

He asked for permission to use my name to which I said yes and immediately afterwards I preordered the book on Amazon.

I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to that book. A question that I have now been pondering for over 1.5 years would finally be answered.

That book came out last week.

what if

Before I talk about my question, I want to talk about the book first. First off, I’m not done with it and I’m glad I’m not done with it yet. You should take your time with this book, read it when you have something in the oven or 10 minutes to kill. This book should be digested slowly (note, please don’t eat the book).   That said, this book is highly enjoyable and I guarantee you you will learn random things such as if a nuclear submarine could survive in outer space. You definitely won’t regret buying this book.

And for my question?

I can’t tell you how satisfied I am with it. The biggest thing I’m surprised about is (spoilers) there were a lot more explosions in it than I thought there would be. Also how my question nearly destroys the world Muhahahahaha! But being (slightly) serious here, the thing I was most curious about was what would be going on on the right side of the periodic table. The left side I knew would burst into flames (and according to the book I was right) but the right side I knew would be the most interesting. I was correct as a lot of strange stuff happened including the reaction between gallium and aluminum (which lies directly above it). Whenever these two meet, gallium transforms aluminum to a paper-like status. Go figure. I also love how phosphorous and sulfur caused the most trouble near the upper rows and made the real life Periodic Table a death zone.

Randall Munroe said he hoped I enjoy his answer. Well, I can safely say that I do. If you haven’t bought his book yet BUY IT NOW! It’s awesome! And while you are at it buy The Disappearing Spoon.  You won’t miss out on enjoying both actual and theoretical science between these two books.


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