By Keith Staskiewicz
Updated July 20, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

The best science writers, like the best science teachers, bring an enthusiasm for the material that infects even those of us who wouldn’t usually give a flying photon. In The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean, whose interest in the chemical world began with the inadvisable childhood activity of snapping open mercury thermometers, unpacks the periodic table’s bag of tricks (the book’s title refers to gallium, a metal that disintegrates in hot coffee) with such aplomb and fascination that material normally as heavy as lead transmutes into gold.

Kean’s traipse among the elements leads him through a warren of subjects, as he examines how these basic building blocks have factored prominently in astronomy, biology, literature, history, politics, and even cryptozoology. With the anecdotal flourishes of Oliver Sacks and the populist accessibility of Malcolm Gladwell, but without the latter’s occasional facileness, he makes even the most abstract concepts graspable for armchair scientists. His keen sense of humor is a particular pleasure, such as when he compares the reaction between a large rhodium-based catalyst and an equally bulky molecule to ”two obese animals trying to have sex.” The humor also helps illuminate history’s grimmer ironies. For every humanity-serving development an element brings, there is a harmful, I-am-become-God aspect, never more evident than in the case of Fritz Haber, who saved millions from famine with artificial fertilization and then caused nearly as many deaths by inventing mustard gas. Better living through chemistry is often accompanied by better killing.

Arthur C. Clarke once noted that truly advanced science cannot be distinguished from magic. Kean succeeds in giving us the cold hard facts, both human and chemical, behind the astounding phenomena without sacrificing any of the wonder — a trait vital to any science writer worth his NaCl. A?

See all of this week’s reviews