Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2010
Source: Library Audiobook
Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: war crimes, human experimentation, mention of racism, misogyny
Sam Kean weaves a yarn that takes a trip through the entire periodic table. It’s mostly in order by linear history and delves into a bit about how the table itself can be a communication tool with extra-terrestrials beings (which are more likely to exist than one might think).
Much like The Icepick Surgeon, Kean delivers again on engaging storytelling with appropriate historical context, where madness isn’t as much the focus as it is an emergent property of scientific history.
Where was this book when I was in high school and college? The way Kean presents otherwise complicated physics and chemistry concepts with such empathy for his audience. He wants readers to understand the fundamentals before getting into the complexities that are foundational to contemporary physics – especially nuclear physics. The footnotes are also particularly helpful, if at times glib, but do a great job pointing back and referencing stories and concepts introduced in earlier parts of the book.
The contextualization in particular is most impressive. Kean provides historical grounding for why elements were named the way their were, the near-misses of “discovery,” and how credit gets attributed between scientists. It’s where the book shines and makes it such a neat account despite the dry-at-first-glance subject matter.