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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 [Kindle Edition]

Sam Kean
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (583 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $17.00
Kindle Price: $9.99
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Sold by: Hachette Book Group
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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Science magazine reporter Kean views the periodic table as one of the great achievements of humankind, "an anthropological marvel," full of stories about our connection with the physical world. Funny, even chilling tales are associated with each element, and Kean relates many. The title refers to gallium (Ga, 31), which melts at 84ËšF, prompting a practical joke among "chemical cognoscenti": shape gallium into spoons, "serve them with tea, and watch as your guests recoil when their Earl Grey ˜eats™ their utensils." Along with Dmitri Mendeleyev, the father of the periodic table, Kean is in his element as he presents a parade of entertaining anecdotes about scientists (mad and otherwise) while covering such topics as thallium (Tl, 81) poisoning, the invention of the silicon (Si, 14) transistor, and how the ruthenium (Ru, 44) fountain pen point made million for the Parker company. With a constant flow of fun facts bubbling to the surface, Kean writes with wit, flair, and authority in a debut that will delight even general readers. 10 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Like big-game hunters, scientists who stalked an undiscovered element courted peril: Marie Curie and Enrico Fermi both died from exposure to dangerous elements in the course of their experiments. But besides them and Dmitri Mendeleev, the deviser of the periodic table, which looms over science classrooms everywhere, few discoverers of the elements occupy the consciousness of even avid science readers. Kean rectifies that in this amble from element 1, hydrogen, to element 112, copernicium. Attaching stories to a human-interest angle, Kean ensures that with his elaboration of the fixation a chemist, physicist, industrialist, or artist had for a particular element comes clarity about why the element behaves as it does. The soft sell about proton numbers and electron shells thus closes the deal for Kean’s anecdotes about elements of war, elements of health, and elements of wealth, plus the title’s practical joke of a spoon (made from gallium). Whether explaining why Silicon Valley is not Germanium Valley or reveling in naming-rights battles over a new element, Kean holds interest throughout his entertaining debut. --Gilbert Taylor

Product Details

  • File Size: 1505 KB
  • Print Length: 390 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (June 24, 2010)
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,024 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
369 of 379 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Accessible science for any age July 2, 2010
I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry. Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!). It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that related at all to real life. If I had a teacher like Sam Kean, however, that could have been different.

Fast forward too many years, and now I'm engrossed in this nonfiction 'memoir' of the Periodic Table of Elements. Like any good biography, this has scandal, lies, fraud, madness, explosions (!!!) and lots of name-dropping. Kean explains just what the periodic table is, but in a format that reads more like a novel, with anecdotal details to liven it up. Mercury pills were used by Lewis and Clark for their health? Yep, and you can trace their path (um, at least their bathroom trips on their journey) by where scientists have found unusually high amounts of mercury in the soil. The poet Robert Lowell? Did lithium ruin his work by making him sane? Who knew the lies and fraud and mind games played by scientists intent on getting a Nobel Prize!

There's no getting around it, this is a book that makes you think. It's not simple and it assumes you have a basic knowledge of science. Some areas were over my head, but not for long. Kean is a wonderful teacher with a sassy wise guy voice that livens up any of the deeper areas.
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148 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Periodic Table Tour de Force July 13, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sam Kean has written a marvelous book that will delight general readers and experts alike. The writing is crisp and sharp and includes an unusual political savyness for somebody treating scientific issues. Kean uses his journalistic skills to succeed in doing what many, perhaps most, academics fail to do when presenting the relevance of chemistry to the real world. Not just applications but also how the history of individual elements has affected the lives of ordinary people. See for example his account of niobium and tantalum. Then there are chapters that weave together the lives of famous chemists and physicists such as one on Segre and Pauling, all in the context of the discovery of elements and developments in twentieth century chemistry and physics. Technicalities are kept to a minimum and when necessary explanations are provided in a clear and lucid manner.
Everybody should read this book, period.

Dr. Eric Scerri, author of The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press, 2006.
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462 of 517 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Suffers from lack of an expert editor August 7, 2011
This book is worthwhile, interesting overall, and fascinating in places. I think it offers a good read to intelligent persons of almost any background. However, there are a number of glib misstatements, mis-characterizations, bumbled explanations, misspellings, and outright howlers that could have been caught and corrected by an editor with an ear for inelegant phrasing and a decent breadth of general scientific knowledge (i.e., the kind of knowledge that a popular-science-book editor ought to have). A few examples:

The author writes, "The body will rid itself of any poison, mercury included", as the explanation for the efficacy of a mercuric chloride laxative pill. This is both glib and inaccurate. It smacks of that kind of knowing, breezy folk wisdom that sounds right but is misleading or false. There are many noxious substances that elicit no gastrointestinal reaction at all when ingested, as well as many substances that elicit a reaction without being poisonous. In fact, the diarrheal action of mercuric chloride does not depend on its being a compound of a poisonous element.

The enzyme tryptophan synthetase is referred to as "a relative of [tryptophan]". It is not. Tryptophan synthetase is a protein and therefore a string of amino acid molecules, while tryptophan is simply one of many amino acids . Tryptophan synthetase catalyzes some of the reactions by which tryptophan is synthesized. Although tryptophan is by coincidence a component of tryptophan synthetase, the enzyme is not "related to" tryptophan any more than to any other of its constituent amino acids.

A real howler is the description of the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter as "the first intergalactic collision humans ever witnessed.
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49 of 53 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Start in Chapter 2 August 15, 2010
As a professor of chemistry, I have to say I was a bit worried after reading Chapter 1 of this book. A great case study in classic misconceptions -- that there is something "satisfying" for an atom to have a complete octet, for example, or that lungs regularly deal with carbon dioxide and so "see nothing wrong with absorbing its cousin, SiO2...." or that in chemical compounds, "rings are states of high tension" just to cite a few.

But overall, it was a great read. Kean has a great sense of comic timing and is a wonderful story teller. I especially enjoyed the story of aluminum (aka aluminium), which I had never heard.

Just ignore most of the chemistry being "taught"! Start in Chapter 2.
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76 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun and interesting read! July 14, 2010
By Ryan C.
I love books but only have so much time, so I'm pretty careful about what I choose to read. I heard great things about this book through word of mouth, and it didn't disappoint! Kean does a masterful job of explaining the interesting facts and stories behind the elements that make up our universe in a way that's easy to understand and fun to read. Especially for people like me, who love to learn...but maybe spent more time in high school science class shooting spitwads than actually reading our boring text books! With "The Disappearing Spoon," Kean truly makes science and history come alive--I highly recommend!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Challenge
Picked it up for a layman's explanation. Quickly became too dense. Amusing anecdotes, but they fail to carry the book.
Published 1 day ago by Klute
3.0 out of 5 stars A fun read, but weak on the scholarship
In "The Disappearing Spoon" Sam Kean writes an entertaining and easy to read popular history of science centered around the elements and the periodic table. Read more
Published 1 day ago by James S. Nowick
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bookschlepper Recommends
I never took chemistry or physics in school; it all seemed too complex. This book was recommended to my book club and I am so glad that it was. Read more
Published 6 days ago by Jean Sue Libkind
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun little book!
I sure hope lots of kids in high school and college are getting to read this thing - it's great!
Published 7 days ago by D. Finnley
5.0 out of 5 stars My niece (a science teacher) recommended this book to me (a fellow...
My niece (a science teacher) recommended this book to me (a fellow nerd) and it hit me squarely between the eyes. Read more
Published 15 days ago by Randall M. Lorenz
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written science history.
This was a great piece of science communication for the layperson and history nerd in all of us.
Published 18 days ago by Nick
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth it
I thought this was a well organized and insightful accounting of the period table. I think I will try to get my kids to read it as well.
Published 19 days ago by John Scott
3.0 out of 5 stars Makes chemistry a little more tolerable.
I thought the author did a good job on making this book easy to read for someone who hasn't been in a science class for at least a decade. Read more
Published 27 days ago by MK
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for the busy man I gave it to
Perfect for the busy man I gave it to. Between work and school he can't concentrate on something with an involved plot. Read more
Published 28 days ago by D. Frey
4.0 out of 5 stars Love this book and as a chemistry teacher I have ...
Love this book and as a chemistry teacher I have been able to use parts of the book with my students.
Published 28 days ago by Liane McGillen
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More About the Author

Official bio: Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and now he's a writer in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. His first two books, The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb were national bestsellers, and both were named an Amazon "Top 5" science books of the year. The Disappearing Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society for one of the top science books of 2010, while The Violinist's Thumb was a finalist for PEN's literary science writing award. His work has also been featured on "Radiolab" and NPR's "All Things Considered," among other shows. You can follow him via Twitter @sam_kean, and read excerpts at

(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. At night, he sometimes comes down with something called "sleep paralysis," which is the opposite of sleepwalking. Right now, he lives in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master's degree in library science that he will probably never use. He feels very strongly that open-faced sandwiches are superior to regular ones.


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