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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Little, Brown, Jul 12, 2010 - Science - 400 pages
8 Reviews
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.

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In order to learn more about the periodic table and it’s many stories I read The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Sam Kean is a scientist and author who is well known for his other science novels such as The Violinist's Thumb and The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons. The Disappearing Spoon is a novel that focuses on the periodic table and many individual elements by telling fascinating stories about their findings or discoveries made about them.
The Disappearing Spoon focuses on many different scientists and the elements they founded or expanded knowledge on. Within each chapter, Sam Kean goes in depth on an element or a small group of them by either telling a story or interesting anecdote. These accounts give us more perspective on the uses of each element and its potential to be beneficial or negative towards our world. Some of the many topics he looks at are elements being used for war, money and production. Elements like uranium hold scary powers when enriched properly and pose a scary threat to the future of our society. He also talks about why some elements are more popular than others. For instance, aluminum, which at first was extremely valuable and expensive, is now used to create some of our cheapest and most recycled items like cans. This is because one scientist developed a way to mass produce pure aluminum extremely efficiently. Stories like this provide great insight on each element and why they or may not be so relevant in our society today.
While this book is very fun and interesting, it is still quite challenging and requires focus and attentiveness while reading. I found myself rereading certain sections of the book just because some of the concepts were so complex. I found that one of the issues with the book was that without previous knowledge of the periodic table, it wasn't as easy to follow as I would've liked. This however is only a minor problem to a very good book. The Disappearing Spoon is an amazing story teller. There was almost nothing in this book that had I ever read or heard of before. New names and ideas were proposed to me throughout the reading of this novel and it kept me captivated the entire way. Sam Kean takes a topic like the periodic table, which most people would find boring, and brings it to life. He is extremely thorough in his writing but not to the point of boredom. As a student taking his first year of chemistry, this book has truly increased my interest in the subject and made me think a lot about how our world works today.
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean is a very good summary on the origin of the periodic table and the discovery of it’s elements. This book serves its best purpose for students or anyone looking to expand their knowledge in this subject. The key things that this book does well is bring the elements to a place where everyone can relate to them. By showing their real life capabilities and how most of us are affected by them without even knowing it, Sam Kean draws the reader's interest in even more. In all, I highly recommend this book for it’s ability to teach the elements in an intriguing and relatable way.
-Nick Everest

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For my Chemistry I class, we read The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Sam Kean has covered many scientific discoveries and inquiries through his time as a writer. He has written for many notable publications such as the New York Times. I was assigned to read this book for school, but still enjoyed the reading as it covered a variety of interesting topics surrounding Chemistry. Sam Kean wrote the book to shed light on how Chemistry has affected the world through past history and in the present. I enjoyed reading this book, but the variety of topics Kean covered prevented him from covering any singular topic and resulted in a feeling of scatteredness when one recalls the variety of topics covered in the publication.
The Disappearing Spoon is a long book that travels through time and discusses a wide variety of people, places, and events that have affected Chemistry. The book talks about scientists such as Thomas Rutherford and Marie Curie, and discusses topics such as historic chemical experiments and other discoveries. The book is so vast and expansive that trying to summarize the book in few sentences would be a foolhardy expedition.
However, there was one theme that I immensely enjoyed and that was chemical warfare. Kean remarked on the use of enriched uranium to create nuclear bombs that shaped how wars were fought into today. The concept gave me a better understanding of things that were happening in present day, such as the Iran deal and why shutting down so many centrifuges would prevent the production of enriched uranium and why this would make such a difference. It was themes like this that were very important as the concept transcended a basic understanding of Chemistry and shed light on other issues.
I have been learning Chemistry 1 for three months now and am very confident and proud of my understanding of the subject. However, through my reading in this book, my understand as well as ability to grasp new concepts were tested and strengthened. The book reviewed know concepts in the beginning and then stretched into other concepts that I did not know as well. I really appreciated the way that I was able to use this book as another tool to further my learning in a different way.
I enjoyed reading The Disappearing Spoon as I develop and strengthen my knowledge in the field of Chemistry. However, the variety of topics covered can make the book feel scattered and confuse the reader at times. Nevertheless, I do not believe that without Kean's book I would have the same type of Chemistry brain that I have, and I recommend it to any Chemistry enthusiast looking for an interesting read.

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The Genealogy of Elements
The Galápagos of the Periodic Table
We Are All Star Stuff
Elements in Times of
Completing the Table with a Bang
Extending the Table Expanding the Cold
From Physics to Biology
Political Elements
Elements as Money
Artistic Elements
An Element of Madness
Chemistry Way Way Below Zero
The Science of Bubbles
Tools of Ridiculous Precision
Above and Beyond the Periodic Table

Take Two Elements Call Me in the Morning
How Elements Deceive
Acknowledgments and Thanks

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About the author (2010)

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 2009 Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellow.

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