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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

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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, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, 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, discovery, and alchemy, 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.

394 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Sam Kean

15 books1,508 followers
Sam Kean is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, The Believer, Air & Space, Science, and The New Scientist. He is currently working as a reporter at Science magazine and as a 2009 Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellow.

From SamKean.com

(Un)Official Bio:
Sam Kean gets called Sean at least once a month. He grew up in South Dakota, which means more to him than it probably should. He’s a fast reader but a very slow eater. He went to college in Minnesota and studied physics and English. He taught for a few years at an experimental charter school in St. Paul, where the kids showed up at night. After that, he tried to move to Spain (it didn’t take) and ended up in Washington, D.C. He has a master’s degree in library science he will probably never use. He wishes he had a sports team he was passionate about, but doesn’t, though he does love track & field.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,308 reviews
Profile Image for Jason.
114 reviews578 followers
August 13, 2010
Stop the search. Recall the teams. I have found the non-fiction, summer read of 2010! The Disappearing Spoon.

First, what’s a summer read, Mr. Josey Wales thumbnail photo? A summer read is one you can enjoy during a vacation to the beach, with fresh cocktails and clean towels provided by the swarthy, bronzed attendant at a seafront hotel. You can finish it in a few days in bite-sized chunks, it doesn’t overpower you academically, you learn a little, and the subject is something entirely new to you, which allows you to ‘escape’ mentally just as you are physically from that 50-hour, weekly cubicle career and hateful commuter traffic.

The book catalogues the 200 year history of the piecemeal development of the periodic table in chemistry. Wait, this is not your high school chemistry class! Sam Kean uses the most idiosyncratic, unusual, serendipitous, and funny events to tell this story. You learn as much about the brilliant, boisterous, bi-polar, bastardly, and braggadocio scientists as you learn about each element on the periodic table. Each of 19 chapters pulls together several periodic elements and outlines their unexpected similarity and relatedness--atomically, quantumly and culturally. And the narrative moves fluidly back and forth through time to capture the relevant history of each element. The book highlights discoveries that are still being made, current as of late 2009.

Strontium, Molybdenum, Ruthenium, Francium, Ytterbium. Neptunium, Berkelium, Californium, Lawrencium. What are you all about? How were you discovered? Why are you so important? And why the heck are you so rare?

This is neat science told in a fun and effervescent way. There are some awesome, awe-inspiring, and yet sometimes pedestrian, elements out there. Science ofttimes moves forward in jumps and spurts, and Kean is quick to relate how it moves chaotically, unexpectedly, bizarrely, and accidentally. The author reviews not just core chemistry but also history, physics, cosmology, and psychology. The scientists and their Rube Goldberg experiments are as interesting as the results. Periodic elements are really cool (yes, I actually said that). They’re phenomenal, toxic, powerful, rare, ephemeral, magical, radioactive, and have the most interesting relationships to each other. We’re told why, when, and how they’ve been used and abused through history, and how they shepherded great leaps in the advancement of human civilization.

The Disappearing Spoon is quick, light reading out in the sun. It handles complex theory in a comfortable, approachable way. Kean uses good rhythm in the book, chapters of uniform length, and a bit of humor to bring it all home. He pulls it off effectively--Mr Wizard meets chaos theory. Sixth grade, mall, ‘wow’-science is discussed right next to the paragraph about how to produce absolute zero or 35 million degrees, both of which, incidentally, are created by lasers.

In the end, you’ll learn a little, laugh a little. You may not remember anything from this book 2 years from now, but you will retain this: elements are neat as hell, and thank goodness for chemists and physicists.

New words: depilatory, eluted
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,179 reviews9,235 followers
January 18, 2013
My GR friend Jason writes sturdy and trustworthy reviews, but I must take exception with him here :

The Disappearing Spoon is quick, light reading out in the sun. It handles complex theory in a comfortable, approachable way.

Yes, it is all that, IF such stuff as this makes sense to you :

The strongest solo acid is still the boron-based carborane (HCB11C111) And this boron acid has the best punchline so far : it's simultaneously the world's strongest and gentlest acid. To wrap your head around that, remember that acids split into positive and negative parts. In carborane's case you get H+ and an elaborate cagelike structure formed by everything else (CB11C111-) With most acids it's the negative portion that's corrosive and caustic and eats through the skin. But the boron cage forms one of the most stable molecules ever invented. Its boron atoms share electrons so generously that it practically becomes helium, and it won't go around ripping electrons from other atoms, the usual cause of acidic carnage.

Well, this could be part of the rules of Quidditch for all the sense it makes to poor general reader me, so I think The Disappearing Spoon is really for science geeks who think stuff about German chemists being hornswoggled out of a Nobel Prize for Alchemy by some Californian sharpies in 1951 or a neat account of the crucial properties of the biomolecule which are called handedness is the very thing for those moments on the beach when there isn't any eye candy around.
Profile Image for kate.
659 reviews
November 17, 2011
Okay. Let me tell it to you honestly.

This book is not the most well written book - the sentences are clunky and there is not a clear narrative. It is much more of a rambling collection of stories and facts and quirky science knowledge.

That said, I couldn't get back to reading this fast enough. I thought about a book about the scientific table throughout the day. I stole a few minutes wherever I could. I carried this book with me and was even *gasp* early to pick up the kids so that I could read a few minutes in the car.

I mean, the opening factoid is about our ability to trace Lewis & Clark's trail by following the mercury laced poop trail. I love that shit.

Growing up, I never loved science. I didn't learn the periodic table in school like others did. And so, there were times in this book, where I only understood a few clauses in each paragraph because the concepts were so advanced, but the author did a great job of bringing it back to a laypersons' comprehension in the next paragraph.

So, in summary, this book is written for all levels of science (or not) nerds. It is full of incredible tales and the fun secrets and stories of the people involved in the development of the periodic table (and science as we know it).

I will absolutely be rereading this book - most definitely when the boys are learning the periodic table in school.
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,748 reviews1,214 followers
January 7, 2019
This is an absolutely brilliant idea for a book and it’s a superb book. It’s beautifully organized and well written. It’s a wonderful way to learn and/or deepen knowledge of chemistry. This book is fine for laypeople, but will give meaning and extra enjoyment even for advanced chemistry students. Much appreciated by me was that the information imparted was over my head only a very few times, and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve never taken a chemistry class.

This book covers the elements of the periodic table via its history and by telling stories about the various elements: their history of discovery, how they’ve been used at various times, various people who found ways to make use of them. Anyone with a smidgen of curiosity about any aspect of life should find many things here that they find interesting. So many subjects are covered including astronomy, war, South Pole exploration, health and illness and poisoning, history, other sciences, the personalities of those who have contributed to the findings in the field, and so much more. It’s jam packed with useful facts and enjoyable stories. The relevance of the elements (chemistry) in everyday life is made so clear.

There are many lovely digressions that turn out not to be digressions at all. There were very amusing parts, including funny quips that frequently pop up, and all of those quips have substance. It has a sort of gossipy (in a good way) tone. I learned so much. I found out that I love Linus Pauling and many other scientists who’ve contributed to the field.

I was surprised how much of what’s been discovered in the field of chemistry has been done fairly recently, and how it’s still a growing, living scientific endeavor.

While I’ve always been interested in science, and I did want a chemistry set when I was a child (request denied), I knew deplorably little about chemistry. Like the author, I loved playing with growing balls of mercury from broken thermometers. Quite a few of the elements themselves were, of course, familiar to me, but I didn’t know much about them. I had a bit of chemistry in other college science classes and in nutrition class. As I read, I frequently wished I’d memorized the table before reading this book. There is a table of the elements in the back of the book but it includes abbreviations only; it is not embellished; there is no list of elements by name next to it. However, in the index, thankfully, the elements are listed in bold, and I referred to that index at the beginning of every chapter when some elements were listed, in what looked to me like unusual Scrabble tiles.

I read the notes as I read along, and they were easy to find because they started with page number and beginning of phrase in bold as a match their section in the book, but I’d still rather they’d have been included in the text proper to make the information even easier to read and to make it flow more smoothly.

This book should be part of every beginning chemistry class. It makes the subject so interesting. This is certainly not the only attempt to make chemistry a great deal of fun for everyone. The book mentions the Tom Lehrer song, The Elements (which can be seen in many places including here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYW50F...).

I really enjoyed this book, although I did end up reading it slowly, and I did take one break to read the young adult novel Mockingjay, which I’d been waiting to read for nearly a year.

This is a gem of a book and such a great idea. I adored the humor, and there was a lot of it. I’ll let readers see for themselves why the book’s title is what it is.

I hope that Sam Kean (or someone) writes similar books about physics, mathematics, etc. etc. I would definitely read them if they were as clever as this book.
Profile Image for Mackey.
1,043 reviews362 followers
October 11, 2018
This is on the banned book list - why!? Oh that's right. Certain parents think that science is too "real" for their precious babies. What a lot of baloney!

The Disappearing Spoon is, quite literally, one of the most fascinating, informative, FUNNY, books about the Periodic Table that I've ever read. Okay, it is the only book about the Periodic Table that I've ever read - but it is amazing. For those who love science or for those who simply would like to better under the elements that make the cosmos what it is, then this is a must read for you!!

As for the "disappearing spoon" trick - well, you'll just have to read the book to find out the secret to this parlor trick for yourself! You'll be glad that you did!
Profile Image for Emily.
694 reviews2,004 followers
April 28, 2017
This book took me 76 days, or almost three months, to read. In this case, I needed all seventy-six individual days to work my brain through passages like this one:

For instance, thirteen aluminium atoms grouped together in the right way do a killer bromine: the two entities are indistinguishable in chemical reactions. This happens despite the cluster being thirteen times larger than a single bromine atom and despite aluminium being nothing like the lacrimatory poison-gas staple ... The clusters work like this. The atoms arrange themselves into a three-dimensional polyhedron, and each atom in it mimics a proton and a neutron in a collective nucleus. The caveat is that electrons can flow around inside this soft nucleic blob, and the atoms share the electrons collectively. Scientists wryly call this state of matter "jellium."

All you need to know is that I'm sort of an idiot. If you read the above passage and thought, "This makes perfect sense! What an appropriate way to explain jellium, a state I've always been interested in!", then you are less of an idiot than me and will probably enjoy this book very much.

To give more context, here's how much of an idiot I am: when I took physics at Stanford (on the way to my successful minor! ha!), I had a lot of trouble with electricity and optics. To study, I did literally every single problem from those chapters, and I did the word problems multiple times. When I got to the final, I immediately recognized one of the problems I had done at least four times, was jubilant for about 2 seconds, and then realized I had absolutely no idea how to do it. (I think I only got half credit.) That is how good I am at squashing scientific concepts into my brain.

On the positive side, I find all of this very interesting, and because I forget it so quickly, I have a lifetime of renewed discoveries ahead of me.
Profile Image for Orhan Pelinkovic.
86 reviews150 followers
July 12, 2020
The spoon disappeared in a cup of tea as the spoon was made out of gallium that melts at 29°C - not my cup of tea. This book is rich in empirical evidence and interesting tales of the last 200 years of history and discoveries of the chemical elements of the periodic table. However, the countless stories lacked the threads that could have given them a common fabric.

The periodic table, which is currently comprised of 118 elements (112 at the time the book was written), is an ongoing process. The number of elements in our 14 billion year old universe increased over time. Right after the Big Bang a couple of elements formed, but later through nuclear fusion in stars, and stellar explosions known as supernovas, created and released the other naturally occurring elements. The remaining elements in the periodic table are synthetic (woman-made / man-made).

The book walks us through Mendeleev's periodic table of elements that is composed of the main ingredients that chemists, physicists, and other scientist use for their recipes and experiments. The author shares many amusing background stories on how numerous chemical elements were isolated and shaped the way wars were fought, politics conducted, and relationships impacted.

We see how women, like Marie Skłodowska Curie, her daughter Irene, Lise Meitner, and others played a pivotal role in the evolution of the periodic table.

The author also recognizes that science, as a whole, was greatly contributed by immigrants.

Somewhere in the first quarter of the book an interesting question was asked by Kean and that is whether theory or experiments are responsible for the advancement of science? I wish this question was further elaborated.

The reader will definitely walk away with a considerable amount of interesting information, but not enough understanding of the subject matter. The author spent almost the whole book informing, rather than teaching and challenging me to think.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in getting a tour of the chemical elements and their backstories.

[I read the Montenegrin (Serbian / Croatian / Bosnian) translation Kašika koja nestaje - autor Sem Kin. Laguna 2018 Publishing / 459 pages / 111,901 words. Great translation.]
913 reviews389 followers
May 24, 2011
There's a certain type of goodreads troll -- the one who defends their beloved book by saying something like, "Well, if you knew the topic didn't interest you why were you stupid enough to pick up the book?" To that goodreads troll I now have an answer: this book.

If you had told me a few weeks ago that I'd find a book about chemistry and the periodic table of elements difficult to put down, I'd have had a hard time believing you. But I did. This book was funny, interesting, even gripping at times, and always engaging. I took off a star because I'll admit that I didn't get all of it despite the author's best efforts. I guess it would take more than a fun book to turn me into a chemistry person. But it was still a wonderful read, and not a guilty pleasure because it was actually educational. This meant I could feel virtuous for once while I ignored my various responsibilities in favor of more reading.

So not only did I get to enjoy a good book, I feel vindicated in my ongoing belief that a a sufficiently good writer can make any topic interesting, even to a reluctant reader. Yes – sometimes it pays to leave your reading comfort zone. And when it doesn’t, you have every right to complain because it is about the book, not just about a personal bias with regard to the content.

For a good book, there should be no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” reader.
Profile Image for Valerie.
2,017 reviews162 followers
January 20, 2011
This does for the periodic table what I am always trying to do for math....link the science to the historical events, the people, and the economics that push scientific discoveries. I was fascinated by the many details about the hunt for elements, the private lives of the Curies, the radioactive boy scout, the dangers of storing rare elements in the Congo, and that the same man who invented nitrogen rich fertilizers, is also the inventor of zyklon B. It also made me want to read more about The Manhattan Project, so I guess its time to put the Rhodes book on my wishlist.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,885 followers
August 5, 2022
Quite interesting pop science on the elements. Lots of interesting human stories about the scientists who discovered elements and worked out the periodic table, lots of interesting stuff about how the elements work and their effects, and the science is well explained. It's a tad over long and goes a bit too heavy on quantum mechanics for my comprehension abilities, but plenty of intriguing facts to chew over and I definitely learned stuff.
187 reviews35 followers
December 26, 2010
I should have liked this book more and I can't really explain why I didn't. It's not poorly written (though it ain't Solzhenitsyn) and it's not that uninteresting of a topic, but I just found that after the first 40ish pages, I dreaded having to read more. It was like pulling teeth, only a bit less painful, even without the option of novocaine.

I think part of it was that the book wasn't well organized. The author seemed to jump around the periodic table at his whim without keeping a consistent framework (perhaps that was the point, it was a bit unclear to me).

Anyway, the writing is OKish enough and it is certainly very well researched, so I can understand why many people have liked it. And it's really not a bad science book, but for some reason I just found myself having a viscerally negative reaction to having to read the next chapter (well I guess I didn't have to keep reading on, but whatever). I don't know, I wish I could pinpoint the source of my discontent with this, but it is what it is, so feel free to try it out for yourself.
Profile Image for Nathan.
Author 8 books112 followers
December 11, 2011
This book constipated my reading for almost a month. I have overdue fines from other books that were stacked up behind it. Not because I wasn't enjoying the book: it's readable, fascinating, and chock full of the very anecdotes about science and scientists that I love. So then, why the hell did I find this book so hard?

It's precisely because the book is a collection of anecdotes that it was so hard to read. I felt like I was trying to grasp quicksilver (mercury, symbol Hg from Latin hydragyrum, meaning “water silver”) as this steady diet of atomic information arrived. Actually, that's a lousy metaphor: quicksilver is a glistening hypnotic liquid because its atoms stick together. These atomic anecdotes didn't: nothing stuck in my head, nothing stuck to each other. There was no overall organizing principle to the book that I could divine, and reluctantly I finished it barely the wiser than I begun.

This book demands flashcards. I want to know the anecdotes. I want them to stick. I am going to have to work at it, however, beyond simply reading the book, if that is to happen.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
November 5, 2012
"Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius."

I can't really speak to the scientific accuracy of this book, but I really enjoyed listening to the stories that come from the periodic table. I feel like I learned some things, which isn't that difficult of a feat since what I remember from my high school chemistry class has more to do with the people sitting near me (we called ourselves the Peanut Gallery). I have vague memories of a teacher, the great Thorstein Sabo, who tried to teach us about the periodic table by telling us stories about electrons playing cribbage in the electron hotel. I didn't really get it.

This book groups different elements, and tells stories about them in context of political intrigue, devastating consequences, and lifesaving discoveries. Coincidentally, I am also reading Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, a book with a lot of parallels to The Disappearing Spoon. Where The Disappearing Spoon demonstrates how war interrupts scientific process, Rites of Spring shows the same about war interfering in the arts. You have to wonder how much farther, or at least different, both science and the arts would be, had we never had the world wars consuming the first half of the twentieth century.

The tiny pieces of information I didn't know would fill a book, this book. It would be impossible to even recite them, but I particularly enjoyed the story of argyria, silver poisoning, and the senate/governor hopeful who drank collodial silver in preparation for Y2K. Argyria turns your skin blue... permanently. Papa smurf!

I also made a note to myself to check out the poet Lowell, who is one of the first people to be treated with Lithium for mental illness. Salt (not an element) was also put into perspective with Ghandi and enforced iodine and I just don't know whether to be grateful that my government is preventing birth defects or to be freaked out that they are adding things like iodine to salt and fluoride to the water.

The audiobook was great for this. Sean Runnette has a unique voice that I enjoyed in zombie stories but still translated well to science!

I will leave you with a song I could not get out of my head during my listen to the second half of the book.
Profile Image for Monica.
582 reviews610 followers
April 26, 2019
Drive by review both literally and figuratively. Interesting/educational book with interesting anecdotes. Assumes a level of scientific knowledge not necessarily found in a casually curious science neophyte. IOW, way over my head. Rather hard to maintain focus and interest when you are barely understanding the composition of the simplest atoms. My take aways from the book are that the Periodic Table is drawn the way that it is beyond formatting choices. There are reasons that every element is located where it is on the table. The fact that the Periodic Table is mapped the way it is, is a scientific marvel. Also, Helium is the only element on the Periodic Table that doesn't combine with any other elements to form molecules. It sees itself as perfect. That's it. My sum total take away from the book. Some rather lucky and stupid scientists travails too...

3.5ish rounded down because I forgot what element the disappearing spoon was. The stories didn't stick.

Listened to the audiobook. Narrated by Sean Runnette who did a respectable job with a complex and sometimes tedious subject.
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews298 followers
August 21, 2016
In a breezy style, Kean intersperses chemistry and physics with a potpourri of stories revolving around the elements. He explains how the elements formed and how they were discovered. He blends complex science and human interest in his examples of how the elements have been used and influenced history. Kean transitions quickly from deep discussions of atomic structure or quantum mechanics to oddities such as the nutcase who turned blue eating silver because he thought there would be no antibiotics after Y2K. Kean tries to make difficult concepts comprehensible such as the fine structure constant and why it is so fundamental to our understanding of the universe. He also fills his book with obscure facts such as how many ounces of the element astatine there are on the earth. The answer is one. And if you find it, it will be gone before you can do anything with it.

Kean serves up tidbits of the lives of the scientists including their personal and professional quirks and claims to fame. He focuses on the developers of the periodic table from Mendeleev who is credited with the original to Glenn Seaborg whose discoveries of super heavy elements expanded it. We learn about Linus Pauling’s unraveling of the structure of protein and his misguided attempt to be the first to crack the structure of DNA. Crick and Watson cagily won that race. He discusses the discovery of quantum mechanics from Max Planck’s initial findings about the spectral distribution of black body radiation to Einstein’s concept of energy as a particle and on through Bohr, Heisenberg and others. These are just a few of the brief vignettes of famous scientists in Kean’s book.

The Disappearing Spoon is full of good stuff for those who want their science lightened up by entertaining sidebars. It’s a bit of a teaser. Kean gives you just enough to get interested in a topic. So I found myself frequently going on line or considering getting something more in depth. The book’s diversity makes it a great way to find something new you might want to know more about. It’s also the perfect book for readers with short attention spans.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,074 reviews222 followers
November 7, 2016
I'm going to have to stop saying that I don't like non fiction. This is the 3rd "science ish" book I have enjoyed recently. This was an interesting look at history as told thru the periodic table. I can't really speak to the accuracy of the science but I really enjoyed reading all the tales. I recognized a lot of the science names but learned some knew things about them. The parts I found the most interesting were how great an effect WWII had on science and scientists and the parts about mental health and brain health. I listened to the audio narrated very ably by Seaan Runnette.
Profile Image for Ginger K.
237 reviews15 followers
February 22, 2012
So far, not so great. The degree of anthropomorphizing of atoms in the introductory chapters has left me completely puzzled about the actual science involved. I have no idea what it means that oxygen is "a bully." Does oxygen shake down other atoms for electrons? How does that even work?

However, the chapter on chemical warfare has been (disturbing but) interesting. If the rest of the book is historical-figures character-driven, rather than atomic character-driven, then my overall opinion of the book should improve. Ugh, spoke too soon. Most of the chapter discusses chemical warfare in Europe around the World Wars. Therefore, most of the chapter is about named individuals -- chemists and soldiers and heads of state. And then one gets to the last four pages which are about how the cell phone industry's demand for niobium and tantalum fed the war in the Congo... a war which is all tribalism and ancient grudges (unlike Europe's wars?). "Gruesome stories have circulated about proud victors humiliating their victims' bodies by draping themselves with entrails and dancing in celebration." Lurid detail, but with no names, no location, no citations. I wish I were kidding. Gruesome stories circulated about 'the Hun' during the war, too, but I didn't see those stories getting a whole lot of coverage in this science book and for good reason -- so why are the stories about Congolese atrocities getting uncritically repeated here? And then to just win at post-colonialism, he unironically quotes Joseph Conrad, who "once called Congo, 'the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human consceince,' and there's little reason to revise that notion today." Thank you ever so much for perpetuating the stereotypical images of the Dark Continent, images which don't need revising despite being a hundred years out of date.
Profile Image for * A Reader Obsessed *.
2,105 reviews432 followers
December 26, 2022
3.5 Stars

I didn’t necessarily want a refresher in chemistry’s periodic table, and though my mind wandered a bit during the more technical parts of this book, I marveled at the fact that I once knew in detail all about atoms and what makes these elements so special, forming every single component of our lives.

Where this shines are the snippets of history scattered throughout, and I appreciate the wonders of scientific discovery and how that has shaped our understanding and advancement. Despite taxing my brain a lot, and despite my dubious personal understanding of the subject matter, I still feel enlightened no matter how fleeting it may be.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
July 30, 2016
Dissolving two noble medals before the nazis arrive

Description: 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.

Part I, Orientation: Column by Column, Row by Row
✓1. Geography Is Destiny
2. Near Twins and Black Sheep: The Genealogy of Elements
3. The Galapagos of the Periodic Table

Part II, Making Atoms, Breaking Atoms
4. Where Atoms Come From: We Are All Made of Star Stuff
5. Elements in Times of War
6. Completing the Table . . . with a Bang
7. Extending the Table, Expanding the Cold War

Part III, Periodic Confusion: The Emergence of Complexity
8. From Physics to Biology
9. Poisoners' Corridor Ouch! Ouch!
10. Take Two Elements, Call Me in the Morning
11. How Elements Deceive

Part IV, The Elements of Human Character
12. Political Elements
13. Elements as Money
14. Artistic Elements
15. An Element of Madness

Part V, Element Science Today and Tomorrow
16. Chemistry Way, Way Below Zero
17. Spheres of Splendor: The Science of Bubbles
18. Tools of Ridiculous Precision
19. Above (and Beyond) the Periodic Table

Profile Image for Andrew.
2,151 reviews
February 16, 2018
Okay I will start by saying this is a fascinating book but you will need some understanding of the periodic table and chemistry - now I am not saying you need to be degree level but it will make some of the references a little easier to spot and the importance of some of the statements just that little more dramatic.

That said and I have read a number of chemistry books both for fun and for academic reasons (yes okay I am chemist) but I did like how the author approached the subject of each chapter. I will admit that it did sort of follow a formula in that he would explain the focus of the chapter (which element or family of elements) a long with hints of entertaining stories and anecdotes.

He would then go back to these stories and explain them further - with the idea that he would reinforce the message of each chapter. So I guess you would have the technical scholarly part followed by the humorous and entertaining story. For me I thought this was a great way of bringing the message home without either being boring or overbearing.

This is a great book for those interested in chemistry. Yes by the nature of the book it focuses on the elements and little of their compounds (although it does talk about their chemistries) but its a great launch pad in to further studies
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
October 4, 2010
This book is quite an entertaining read. It is packed with interesting anecdotes about scientists who explored the outer fringes of the periodic table. I even learned a little bit of chemistry. The book is organized in an intelligent manner--each chapter is devoted to some theme, with a small group of elements that fit into that theme in some way. Sometimes the author strays from the exploration of elements, but he always seems to relate to the chapter's theme.

The only thing that puts me off a bit, is the author's style. It is a rather folksy style, where the words "um", "well", and "friggin" can be found in the middle of a sentence.
Profile Image for Brooke.
537 reviews287 followers
January 30, 2011
This book was lots of fun, and it certainly taught me more than I ever learned in high school chemistry class. Quite honestly, if someone had asked me for a definition of "chemistry" before, I don't think I would have known what to say. At the same time, The Disappearing Spoon wasn't like a lecture in the least bit, and instead folded tons of scientific information into stories about the scientists and their accomplishments. I'd recommend it to anyone who's curious about a subject they may have only encountered at the 101 level.
Profile Image for Ian Tregillis.
Author 71 books1,063 followers
October 22, 2010
This is a rare specimen among the books I tend to read: a two-bookmark book.

I was skeptical when this first came to my attention. I grew up reading any and every science-related book I could find. My early fascination with books about science -- particularly chemistry and physics -- led, many years later, to my day job career. (I also blame Dr. Who for this, but that's a longer story.) But it was a long road, and not surprisingly along the way I lost my enthusiasm for reading books about science topics in my spare time. I always have, and always will, love the fact that people are writing and reading them. But somewhere, along the way to becoming an adult, the stuff I used to love as a kid started to feel like... homework. Like taking my work home with me.

I thought a book filled with strange anecdotes related to the Periodic Table sounded like a terrific idea for folks that would be interested in such things. But that I would not be one of those people. This, in spite of the fact that when I was much younger (before I finally got to learn about all the stuff I wanted to learn) I used to spend hours staring at the Periodic Table, studying it, trying and failing to unpack its arcane secrets. (And yet somehow I'd completely forgotten about that until I read this book. This book deserves four stars just on the basis of helping me remember this.)

Eventually I learned about the mathematics of atoms, and how this gives rise to the Periodic Table. And it was glorious. But then I grew up. Life as an adult is heavy on the mortgage payments, lighter on the soul-stirring wonderment.

So, yeah. I figured I didn't need to read a book about the table because I already knew how it worked. It's still true I didn't need to read this book, but the 10-year-old inside me sure did. I'm glad I listened to him.

Sam Kean (who, judging from his photo on the rear flap, could be a friend's lost twin) adopts a casual, easygoing tone, which keeps the book easily readable, even when the subject matter might become dry in less capable hands. He touches on the scientific underpinnings of the subject when necessary yet never gets bogged down in the weeds. And though he glosses over the details in places (as is the only right thing to do in a book like this) his explanations make for clear, concise distillations of the subject matter. Never did I find myself tempted to skim, even when I was familiar with the background details.

I'd heard a few of the stories in this book, but only a few, and those I'd either misremembered or learned incorrectly in the first place. Much of the information in this book was new to me, but all of it was fascinating. This is much more than a book about the elements and the table upon which they reside; it's also a book about the people who discovered them, loved them, hated them, yearned for them, tried to recreate them. As such, it's filled with remarkable and fascinating tidbits.

I didn't know that exposure to tellurium can make a person reek like garlic. I didn't know that beryllium tastes like sugar. (Where I work, the eating of beryllium is discouraged.) I didn't know about the World War I fight over a nearly defunct mine in Colorado. I didn't know that Fritz Haber was such an epic tool. I didn't know that the "S" of the BCS theory of superconductivity went to prison.

Much of the most fascinating and entertaining material is tucked away in extensive footnotes. The footnote section is worth reading just on its own. The author clearly couldn't resist including many of the little tidbits he'd learned in the course of his research. But rather than breaking the logical development of each section with a tangential anecdote, he leaves the digressions to the footnote section. This section is worth reading just on its own. The notes appear so frequently that I needed two bookmarks, so that I could flip back and forth between the body text and the footnotes section.

If you do decide to pick this up, absolutely do not skip the footnotes. Some of the best stuff is in there. Much of it isn't strictly related to the periodic table, but it's golden just the same.

The book is organized logically, following the first attempts to classify the elements through to cutting-edge speculations about the "island of stability", quantum dots, and other current topics. Each chapter is organized around a theme -- Elements in Times of War, Elements as Money, The Elements of Madness, Poisoner's Corner, etc. The narrative thread of each chapter weaves its way through multiple boxes on the periodic table. (In a lovely piece of book design, the periodic table entries for the relevant elements appear at the top of each chapter.) Kean does an enviable job of developing each chapter logically, and deserves much credit for finding such clean paths through what could have become thickets. In a few places, the narrative's relationship to the chapter theme felt a little forced. But the information along the way is so fun, and presented so well, that I never cared.
Profile Image for Woodge.
460 reviews30 followers
July 7, 2011
This book was an interesting compendium of stories linking up the various elements of the Periodic Table. Not only did I learn about the various scientists who discovered this or that element, but I learned a good deal about many of the elements themselves. It was entertaining enough that I kept coming back to it to read more. I've got a much better understanding now of elements and what makes them differ from each other. And I didn't even realize that elements can change (or decay) into other elements. Never really thought about it, I guess. Now I know how it can happen (though not every element does this.) Lots of cool facts and odd stories about odd scientists are embedded in this book. Recommended for anyone interested in science, especially those without a Ph.D. It's rocks for jocks.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
April 7, 2017
The Disappearing Spoon is not quite as entertaining to me as Sam Kean’s book on neuroscience, but it’s still reasonably fun and definitely an easy read. There���s all kinds of random facts, and he makes things like electron shells very clear — even for me, with my brain’s stubborn refusal to grasp it all. He writes with humour and enthusiasm, pulling out interesting characters and discoveries from the history of the Periodic Table and its elements.

I’m just not as into chemistry/physics as I am biology. Even organic chemistry. I should be, but, alas. So I found that this dragged a bit — for me. It’d probably be unfair to assume it’d drag for you as well, if you’re actually a fan of chemistry.

Originally reviewed on my blog.
Profile Image for DeAnna Knippling.
Author 163 books254 followers
April 30, 2018
Many tales from the trenches of chemistry and physics - including who was sleeping with who, who was screwing who over, and who totally slept through the most controversial parts of a new theory criticizing the one they came up with.

An entertaining read about why the periodic table is so curiously important.
Profile Image for flaminia.
362 reviews79 followers
September 2, 2017
è scritto così chiaro e scorrevole che ho capito perfino io e nei quaranta minuti successivi alla fine della lettura mi sono sentita marie curie.
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