The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon

And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements

Book - 2010
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From New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean comes incredible stories of science, history, finance, mythology, the arts, medicine, and more, as told by the Periodic Table.

Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie's reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?*

The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. THE DISAPPEARING SPOON masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery--from the Big Bang through the end of time.

*Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A classic science prank is to mold gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch guests recoil as their utensils disappear.
Publisher: New York : Little, Brown and Co., 2010
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780316051644
Characteristics: vi, 391 p. : ill. ; 25 cm


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GCPL_Angela Aug 29, 2017

While I am a big fan of science, I've never had a particular aptitude for it, and chemistry was among my worst subjects. I certainly never thought of it as being at all interesting or fun, so the good news is that this book is more interesting than a book about chemistry has any right to be.

The bad news is that it's very spotty in terms of entertainment value. I found certain chapters to be quite interesting, with a few sections of the book passing very quickly; others seemed excessively bogged down with technical descriptions. When Kean is focusing on the human stories behind the discovery of elements and the development of the periodic table, the book shines. For me, however, much of the book is simply too esoteric, although to his credit Kean does a game job of trying to make the material as accessible and understandable as possible.

I read this book after finishing Kean's wonderful "Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons." Had I tried this one first, I likely would've never picked up that book, as I mostly slogged and skimmed through the last couple of chapters of this book simply for the sake of being able to say I finished it. Please don't mistake me: Kean is a talented writer with a knack for injecting dry subjects with interest, but this book -- his first -- is in my opinion a bit of an uneven effort. Unless you are a huge chemistry buff, I can't say that I recommend this one, though I credit the author for a noble (pun intended!) effort.

JCLChrisK Jun 13, 2016

A highly readable and entertaining collection of stories about the chemical elements--more specifically, about the people who have contributed to the development of the periodic table of elements. There is plenty of science as a necessary ingredient to the telling of the tales, but this is not an academic text meant to teach chemistry so much as a celebration of scientific discovery and a storybook. It delights in curiosities and enlightenments, interesting personalities and their explorations. It includes history, politics, etymology, alchemy, mythology, literature, forensics, psychology, astronomy, and much, much more. It wanders a bit and I struggled to understand Kean's organizational logic since it isn't meant to tell a single, coherent story, but that's only a slight matter since the book's joy is meant to be found in each of the individual anecdotes anyway. A perfect read for summer.

Sep 22, 2015

Really enjoyed the book. Would give it 5 stars even though a bit over head in comprehension. My gripe - when mentioning an element why couldn't they add the symbol/abbreviation in the text, like they do in the index. When wanting to check its location on the periodical chart, one has to go to the Index first to get the symbol, then go to the chart. Frustrating. If this was done I would surely have remembered many more of the symbols by the end of the book. The elements number would be handy too, so one doesn't have to search so much. It would also be nice for them to list the elements and give a brief description, such as gas, metal, radioactive, poisonous, rare, used in cell phones or no known use, unstable.... Granted a book could be written just on those items, but it would help to grasp the inter-related aspects of the elements of the chart.

CRRL_CraigGraziano Jun 25, 2015

Almost episodic in nature, the crux of each story is often how a particular element was discovered, and then how humankind has chosen to put it to use. Sometimes it is for public welfare (copper is used on doorknobs and stair railings because most bacteria that land on it die with in a matter of hours), other times for warfare (high demand for the metals used to construct cell phones have contributed to five million deaths in war-torn central Africa since the mid-90’s).

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lbarkema Nov 08, 2014

This was a difficult one to rate because even though Kean writes in an accessible way, I still can't really recommend it to just anyone-only people who like science will fully appreciate this book. I liked the first 3/4 of it but then I just wanted it to end. I enjoyed more of the stories of how all of the elements were discovered and the various asides, and less of the really abstract "you need to be a chemistry/physics nerd" to understand sections that peppered the last 1/4 of the book. Still it's fun and informative and I like the way in which it was told, and I will definitely read his other books. The genetics one sounds a little more up my alley :)

BCD2013 May 12, 2014

NYPL Staff Pick
Explore intriguing tales about every element of the periodic table, their role in human history, and the lives of the colorful scientists who discovered them.
- Selection Team

Mar 15, 2014

I enjoyed reading this book so much. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the vast field of science. I look forward to reading the Author's other books.

JCLHelenH Nov 19, 2013

While the chemistry is a bit over my head, the stories are great. For me, it was a challenging, but rewarding read.

Jun 16, 2013

Just one correction: As we learned from subsequent movies, the Japanese Defense Forces were not successful in killing Godzilla, as it kept coming back stronger and stronger.

Jun 15, 2013

Great Book. Sam Kean does a great job explaining chemistry to people who do not know much about it without making the book feel like a text book. The stories made it really interesting and I can't wait to read his book on DNA.

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Jun 15, 2013

He absolutely deserved one of the great scientific compliments ever paid, when a colleague said Pauling proved "that chemistry could be understood rather than being memorized"

Aug 25, 2012

Donald Glaser - a lowly, thirsty, twenty-five-year-old junior faculty member who frequented bars near the University of Michigan - was staring one night at the bubbles streaming through his lager, and he naturally started thinking particle physics.


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Jun 15, 2013

White_Butterfly_20 thinks this title is suitable for 12 years and over


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Jun 15, 2013

Sam Kean explores the periodic table talking about how each element was discovered, used, or what makes them interesting.


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