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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 Paperback – June 6, 2011


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (June 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780316051637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316051637
  • ASIN: 0316051632
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (487 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,475 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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 http://www.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. 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.

Customer Reviews

This is a very well written book.
lsevans
Sam Kean tells these stories in his wonderful book, The Disappearing Spoon.
David Hoffman
Anyone who reads this book will learn to love and enjoy chemistry.
Michael FitzGerald

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

353 of 362 people found the following review helpful By Amy Henry TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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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141 of 149 people found the following review helpful By Eric R. Scerri on 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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411 of 457 people found the following review helpful By Howard L Ritter, Jr., M.D. on August 7, 2011
Format: Paperback
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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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Robert Hanson on August 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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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75 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Ryan C. on July 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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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