I loved this book! Didn’t want to finish it. Indeed, if the Periodic Table had an unlimited supply of elements (and Mr. Kean were willing to keep writing about them) I believe I could continue listening quite happily indefinitely.
Some books are ideal for episodic listening. If you commute daily to and from work, for example, take your dog for a walk each morning, or perform any other repetitive task that doesn’t require your full conscious attention, it’s nice to allow the more creative part of your mind to drift off along a series of narrative byways in the company of a talented author like Sam Kean. It’s even better, when those byways are as fascinating and colorful as the histories Mr. Kean has unearthed about the elements that make up our natural world.
Using Dmitri Mendeleev’s iconic Periodic Table as an organizing principle, Mr. Kean has concocted a delightful (and informative!) potpourri of science and history that should enthrall nearly any reader. You don’t have to be intrigued by a particular field of science or technology to appreciate the book. The science itself is fascinating; but the stories behind it are even more compelling. Readers who have a technical background needn’t worry either. Whether the topic is chemistry, atomic or subatomic physics, metallurgy, or any of a host of disciplines, Kean deftly balances rigorous theory with heuristic metaphor in a way that makes natural events seem plausible. This takes real skill as a writer. He anthropomorphizes atoms shamelessly to explain the role of valence electrons and dances deftly around the way orbital configuration produces transition elements. Normally I find this kind of hand waving offensive, but Kean makes it work without sounding dumb. In the book’s biographical introduction he reveals that he bounced from one field of study to another throughout high school and college, including a number of liberal-artsy types of major. It’s clear that he didn’t waste his time in any of them. Meanwhile the amount of factual and anecdotal information that he accumulated about elements and the people involved with them is staggering.
I found only one instance in which Kean may have misconstrued things. In discussing the search for new elements, he refers to certain specimens “going nuclear”. By this he undoubtedly intends to say that a mass of fissionable material has gone “critical” (the correct term), which means that there’s enough of it in a given sample to produce more thermal neutrons than it absorbs. This allows the rate of induced fission to remain constant, as in a reactor, or (more likely) to increase, as in a bomb. Other than his use of the wrong word to describe the situation, there’s nothing wrong with this. In related discussions, however, Kean refers to specimens “going radioactive”, in one case speculating that this might happen, while the sample was sitting in someone’s lap. Unlike fission, which can be influenced by external events or by the amount of a specimen that’s present, radioactivity is a purely internal event. A nucleus or a subatomic particle that is subject to radioactive decay will do so in a manner that is predictable only in a statistical sense and is completely independent of any external influence. A radium nucleus or a chunk of elemental radium, for example, breaks down, because it’s unstable. It makes no sense to speak of its “going radioactive”, yet Kean seems to use the term this way on more than one occasion. Barring this one exception I found the science in The Disappearing Spoon to be quite accurate.
The same superlatives apply to the narrative performance by Sean Runnette. Mr. Runnette has a very pleasant voice to begin with, but in addition, his choice of tone, pace, and inflection seem ideally suited to the material. Runnette’s reading greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book. This is particularly admirable in a work that contains so many difficult technical terms. In most cases I found Runnette’s pronunciation spot on. His only glaring error occurred early on, when he mistook the Latinate two syllable “pace” pronounced pä-chā, meaning “with deference to” for the single syllable English pās, meaning “gait” or “walk”. Under the circumstances I’d call that a forgivable mistake.
Overall The Disappearing Spoon is one of the most enjoyable audio books I’ve encountered. In my opinion, if you like scientific subjects, you’ll love it too. Even if you’re not wild about science, I’d recommend giving it a whirl. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Having just finished the audio version of Leonard Mlodinow’s book, Euclid’s Window, I wish I could recommend it without caveat, but I can’t. Mlodinow is obviously a gifted mathematician. His academic credentials include studies at the Max Planck Institute and the California Institute of Technology, where he served on the faculty for a number of years. Having spent some time as a graduate student at Caltech, I know what that means: the guy’s brilliant! Unfortunately mathematical brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into being an engaging writer.
Euclid’s Window takes the reader on a journey through five revolutions in the history of geometry, which is to say five revolutions in humanity’s way of looking at the world. In the book’s introduction Mlodinow outlines this thesis in broad strokes and also describes the societal evolution that accompanied these intellectual changes. If the remainder of the book had merely continued this program, filling in Mlodinow’s arguments in more detail and sophistication, I’d have been well pleased; but, in spite of his considerable mathematical expertise, Professor Mlodinow makes some surprisingly ineffective choices.
For instance, he seems to prefer cumbersome rather than straightforward examples. In discussing Riemann’s theory of elliptical spaces, rather than refer to a simple imaginary sphere with convenient integral dimensions, he drags the reader through a labored geographical representation using the Earth’s surface. The result is a tedious litany of place names and mileages, which might have been instructive as a printed table, but makes for excruciating listening. Similar lumbering demonstrations occur throughout the book.
Lack of illustrations is another deficiency. I don’t know whether the print version of Euclid’s Window employs diagrams – it’s hard to imagine a book about geometry that doesn't! - but they’d have been impossible to convey in the audio format anyway. For listeners trying to assimilate unfamiliar concepts, this could be a significant handicap.
While the mathematical explanations in Euclid’s Window are cogent enough, I found the discussions of physics to be less so. Mlodinow introduces the uncertainty principle without describing the matrix mechanics that Heisenberg used to derive it and General Relativity without mentioning its basic language of tensor calculus. String theory is given even shorter shrift. If you’re considering buying the book, be advised: you won’t learn much math or science. It's all window dressing.
On the other hand the history in Euclid’s Window is fascinating. I had no idea, for example, that Riemann’s gifted predecessor, Carl Friedrich Gauss, led such a dreadful childhood. Mlodinow’s description of the role that geometry played in ancient Egypt and other remote civilizations is fascinating too. Since more of the book is devoted to history than to anything else, maybe that's as it should be.
Stylistically the book was not entirely to my taste either. Mlodinow’s humor is often contrived, and his repeated inclusion of his own sons to personalize discussions quickly lost its charm. I have no doubt that Alexei and Nicholai are delightful youngsters, but Alexei’s decision to dye his hair blue before attending school one day, like the other adventures real and imaginary, that Mlodlinow recounts, added little to my understanding or enjoyment. Technically the audiobook reflects Audible.com’s usual high standards. Robert Blumenfeld’s performance is marred by only a couple of mispronunciations and a tone that occasionally seems a bit precious.
As you can see from the content of this review, my specific objections to the book are all minor, perhaps even petty; but at the end of the day, having listened to the entire audio version, I felt basically unsatisfied. Professor Mlodinow has written another popular book about mathematics entitled Drunkard’s Walk, which deals with the role of random processes in the physical world, a topic that interests me a great deal; but, based on my experience with Euclid’s Window, I’m not going to get it. What more can I say?
As a long-time consumer of recorded books, I’d rate Sailing Alone Around the World as one of the most enjoyable examples of the genre that I’ve ever encountered. By the time Captain Slocum had laid the deck of his aptly named schooner, the “Spray”, in Chapter One and launched her into her natural element, I was completely hooked and my admiration grew throughout the book. Slocum’s narrative style – direct, unaffected, informative – along with his self-deprecating humor, reminded me of another American writer named Samuel Clemens, and it engenders the same feeling of likability. Captain Slocum would surely join Mr. Twain, as one of the ten people I’d most like to invite for an evening of dinner and conversation. Slocum’s account of his voyage is an intriguing blend of introspective, travelogue, and adventure. Contrary to what one might expect (particularly a non-sailor like myself) the captain spent a great deal of his time at sea reading in his cabin, leaving the Spray to find her own way. This wasn’t as reckless as it might seem. Far from land and the major trade routes, with many fathoms of water beneath her keel, a blue water sailor like the Spray could cruise safely and reliably for mile after mile without a hand at the wheel, maintained on her course by the balanced impulses of wind and water on sails and rudder and hull. An experienced seaman like Joshua Slocum could remain comfortably below decks, out of the elements, and read – or even sleep! – confident that he would sense any significant change in conditions or the behavior of his craft. This is evidently what he did during many long stretches, which answers one of my more pressing questions. How did a man with his modest educational background, who had spent most of his adult life working at physically demanding jobs, become such a graceful, imaginative, and appealing writer? The answer is that he learned by reading great writers who had preceded him. Only a few specific titles in his library are mentioned, and these are primarily classics of nautical literature; but it’s evident that Slocum stocked his tiny cabin with scores, if not hundreds of books of all kinds, replenishing these with new volumes whenever he had an opportunity. The results of this immersion are obvious in almost every line that he wrote. Indeed, I’d be pleased to be judged half the writer that Slocum became in his later life, when this book was written. Slocum stopped frequently during his voyage in ports around the world, often remaining for prolonged visits, during which he explored the countryside, sampled local culture, and met a variety of native people, as well as expatriate Americans and Europeans. His journey took place at the end of the nineteenth century, during the last heyday of European colonialism. Consequently, as news of their endeavor preceded them, Slocum and the Spray were welcomed wherever they went, particularly by elements of the world’s great navies, which maintained bases in many foreign ports. As a result, Slocum rarely paid port fees or docking charges and was frequently provided with repairs to his boat, as well as provisioning at no cost. On a number of occasions he was even towed by naval vessels, whose captains were only too glad to help him out of difficult situations. Far from sleeping aboard his vessel in port, he was routinely entertained, often in grand style by ambassadors, port officials, and other representatives of European power, anxious to demonstrate their good will toward this adventurous Yankee. One couldn’t do this sort of thing nowadays, when sailing around the world is almost a commonplace; but Slocum was the first ever to undertake a solo circumnavigation and the people he met, especially sailors and naval personnel couldn’t do enough for him. It must have been delightful; but, to his credit, Slocum didn’t allow special treatment to go to his head. The modesty and good humor that are evident in his writing must have been reflected in the way he behaved in life, and these characteristics seem to have ingratiated him with everyone he met. This is not to say that sailing a small boat single-handed around the world was either easy or uneventful. For every pleasant interlude that the captain spent relaxing in some friendly port, there were harrowing, often life threatening experiences that taxed nerve, wit, and resolve to the ultimate degree. He was obviously a man of considerable physical strength and endurance, not to mention exemplary seamanship, yet on many occasions these qualities were barely enough to ensure his survival. In fact, without considerable luck to go along with his other resources, Captain Slocum and the Spray might never have made it back to New England. Through it all, whether battling mountainous waves to outrun Barbary pirates, clinging to the Spray’s masthead, while the entire boat vanished beneath roiling seas, or threading his way through the deadly shoals of the Magellan Straits during a night of gale force winds, Slocum retains the stoicism and calm acceptance of a man who is used to hard knocks and strenuous exertion as a part of everyday life. If his descriptions of events weren’t so vivid, one would hardly know how often he escaped disaster or even death by the thinnest of margins. By the time he anchors the Spray in his home port after more than two years of sailing over many tens of thousands of miles of the world’s oceans, it’s clear that he has taken us on one of the most extraordinary adventures in the history of the sea. Performance art is an amalgam of the writer’s original conception and the performer’s interpretation of it. The combination isn’t always a happy one, but in this case it works perfectly, which is actually rather strange. Joshua Slocum was a Yankee, born and bred, so we can assume that he spoke with a typical Yankee inflection. Since he wrote his account in the first person, one might think that having someone with Bernard Mayes’ aristocratic English diction narrate the book would seem incongruous. This is not the case. Mayes’ rendition is pitch perfect in both tone and style; and his accent is so pleasant that I’m not sure I would like the book as much, if it were read with a more “authentic” northeasterner’s twang. As a matter of fact, I’m considering buying several other audiobooks simply because Mr. Mayes is the reader. I finished listening to Sailing Alone Around the World a couple of months ago with that curious mixture of pleasure and regret that attends the conclusion of memorable experiences. I can't exaggerate how much I enjoyed the book, especially in audio format, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who likes a good yarn, expertly told.
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