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

eBook - 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.

"Kean unpacks the periodic table's bag of tricks with such aplomb and fascination that material normally as heavy as lead transmutes into gold." —Entertainment Weekly

Published: Little, Brown and Company


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Apr 24, 2021

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean is a non-fiction work about the periodic table of elements. This incredibly informational book is peppered with light humor, which makes for an enjoyable read. The Disappearing Spoon was published in 2010, and so a few pieces of information are out of date, however, those outdated bits are few and far between.

Dec 08, 2020

An accessible treatment of the chemistry, physics and history of the periodic table of the elements. I did find it a bit anthropomorphic in that it seems almost to ascribe volition to natural processes that occur solely because of the chemical or physical properties of atoms (for example, the process of ionization). On the other hand, if the novel-style conflicts means more people will read hard science, I suppose I can't be too hard on it.

Mar 19, 2020

Sensationalistic title aside, The Disappearing Spoon is a comprehensive and very approachable explanation of chemistry's periodic table. Kean focuses on the attributes, uses and background history of all atomic elements without getting into the complexities of molecular chemistry. It reads a lot like Victoria Finlay's books "Color" and "Jewels", both highly recommended too.

apollospacefan Oct 20, 2018

Fun read about the real life story of elements. As a reader, you get to discover and participate in science developments in unexpected, sometimes super strange ways.

SPPL_János Mar 21, 2018

I love non-fiction because interesting revelations come at a far faster pace than fiction, and this history of science and invention as influenced by the elements packs more fascinating factoids per page than anything I've ever read. Far from dry, this delightful parade of tales keeps the human element first and foremost.

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_CraigG 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

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Apr 23, 2020

humbleworm thinks this title is suitable for 14 years and over

Jun 15, 2013

White_Butterfly_20 thinks this title is suitable for 12 years and over


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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

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


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