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

3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  14,707 ratings  ·  1,848 reviews
The Periodic Table is one of man's crowning scientific achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of...more
Hardcover, 394 pages
Published July 12th 2010 by Little, Brown and Company (first published 2010)
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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonA Brief History of Time by Stephen HawkingCosmos by Carl SaganThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Best Science Books - Non-Fiction Only
22nd out of 687 books — 1,729 voters
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Disappearing Spoon by Sam KeanGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
History of Science
3rd out of 179 books — 122 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jason
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 yo...more
Paul
Jan 18, 2013 Paul marked it as i-bet-i-never-finish-these
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,...more
Kate
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...more
Lisa Vegan
Aug 30, 2010 Lisa Vegan rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: those who love chemistry or who’d love to learn chemistry or who think they have no interest
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...more
K
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 time...more
Valerie
Jan 20, 2011 Valerie rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: everyone
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 M...more
rmn
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 f...more
Woodge
Jul 07, 2011 Woodge rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: mad scientists (happy ones too)
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 e...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
"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...more
Brooke
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...more
Nathan
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,...more
Djinnjer
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...more
Corinne
The subtitle of this book is: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. The Periodic Table! Chemistry! How could I possibly be completely enthralled by such a book? How could I dare give it five stars when I wasn't able to truly understand a lot of what I read?

Because of the writing, pure and simple.

Kean makes chemistry accessible for the willing-to-make-an-intellectual-effort layperson - but it's not just the chemistry. It's the...more
Amy


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 biograp...more
Sandi
I'm going to start out saying that Lisa wrote a great review of this book.

As a book, this book is absolutely wonderful. It makes chemistry and physics comprehensible and fun. I listened to it in audio and thought the narrator did a fantastic job with it. He actually made the jokes sound funny. He knew what tone the author was striving for and he hit it spot-on. However, I think I ended up missing a lot by listening rather than reading. The book is so packed full of fun facts and numbers and, of...more
Debbie
"The Disappearing Spoon" teaches the chemistry and physics of atoms and the periodic table. It's taught primarily in the context of short biographies about the Noble prize winning scientists (plus some others) who discovered the various elements or who discovered important things about how the elements or atoms are put together.

Based on the book description I was given, I was expecting more trivia about the elements and how they are and have been used rather than a book teaching science with a m...more
Minli
Sep 20, 2010 Minli rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Minli by: Tbyrd
Shelves: non-fiction, adult
Entertaining read--and a fascinating subject matter. I'm definitely the right audience for this book: someone who knows some chemistry but didn't get any higher degrees in it, and is more interested in the historical, cultural building of the periodic table than the hard science.

Kean's wry prose never lets you forget that his point of view is subjective and conversational: he paints caricatures of famous scientists and makes ridiculous analogies. His audience is undoubtedly American. He does his...more
Ian Tregillis
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 scienc...more
Craig Cottingham
I was a chemical engineering major in college, so some of the background information (like the basics of the periodic table) was familiar to me and therefore a little tedious to read. Outside of that, however, this was a fascinating book that I think would be accessible to non-beakerheads.

Each chapter is devoted to a group of elements that are related. Instead of going for the obvious groupings (the inert gasses, the halogens, etc.) he comes at them from a refreshingly sideways direction. There'...more
Shelley
This book takes a monumental topic -- the periodic table -- and breaks it down into various digestible topic areas. While I enjoyed it (and learned a lot of history of science trivia I'd been unaware of, what with my head stuck in the 18th century) and had a few "a-ha" moments as some organic chemistry concepts FINALLY made sense to me (14 years after my last ochem class), I have two big problems with the book.

-1 star because the book needed editing. Badly. Kean's writing is usually OK, but som...more
Dave
For me this book was a pleasure to listen to. I plan to read a paper or e-book edition shortly. A delightful, an engaging blend of lyrical prose, historic anecdotes and fascinating information. Reminiscent, to me, of some of the writing of Lewis Thomas, Oliver Sacks, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey and John McPhee.

Brain/mind candy or chicken soup for the nerd's soul. Does that make me a dualist?

The chapter essays are wide ranging anecdotal expositions of elements and families of elements. Not only sto...more
Linda I
I don't normally review non-fiction reads, but this one is just too superb to pass up! A wonderful and engaging read from cover-to-cover. Sam Kean takes the periodic table of the elements, a chart that makes most people cringe at thoughts of high school (or college) chemistry, and turns it into a riveting drama about the table's origins and the hunt to find new elements. Science geeks will love the scientific jargon but you don't need a degree in chemistry to understand the fascinating stories b...more
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
A fun read.

For a further review: http://susannag.booklikes.com/post/43... .
Amanda
Think back to your high school chemistry class. Chances are, the artwork adorning the classroom probably contained a poster with the periodic table of the elements. For some reason, all through 7 chemistry classes, my favorite was tungsten.

Pop quiz - what is the chemical symbol for tungsten? Why, "W" of course! Why not T or Tu or Tg?? The "W"is for wolfram, the German name for tungsten. Without it, those handy incandescent lightbulbs would not operate if it weren't for those tungsten filaments.

I...more
Stephanie
Aug 01, 2010 Stephanie rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: Nerds like me
I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, and for me, that’s really...well, unusual. If you had asked me a couple of years ago how I felt about non-fiction, I would have described it as eye-glazingly dull, a dry recitation of facts. But now I eagerly scour the non-fiction shelves at the library. I know -- it’s crazy!

The only explanation is that non-fiction has gotten better. (It can’t be me that’s changed.) The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean is a fine example of this better, more interestin...more
Jason
Sometimes books just fall in my lap....
Although I do pretty much put myself in a position where they seem to fall from the sky at a brisk rate. I went to Barnes & Noble the other day with the wife, ostensibly to get a cup of coffee, and picked up this book and Jose Saramago's 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis'. I couldn't tell you what it was about it that caught my attention.
I'm doing that thing again where I read too many books at once, but despite my inward pleas to the contrary, I...more
Inken Purvis
I really enjoyed this book – even the parts I couldn’t understand. I so wish we’d had this as a set text when I took chemistry in high school. Not only might I have understood the rubbish our teacher was spouting, I might’ve liked it and even passed the bloody thing! Nobody ever even bothered to explain the Periodic Table to us and why it looks the way it does. And it's true: watching a gallium spoon dissolve in a glass of water is pretty cool.

I had no idea the world of chemistry and physics was...more
Sonja Arlow
I think my high school chemistry teacher would set herself on fire with a bunsen burner if she knew I read and enjoyed a book about the periodic table ☺

This book not only addresses the scientific but also the political and social history of the elements of the periodic table. From the first recorded use of chemicals in warfare (the Greeks throwing stink bombs at their enemies, to what really killed the dinosaurs.

One of the funniest side stories was about Stan Jones, who through some backyard ex...more
Tippy Jackson
What Neil DeGrasse Tyson does for astronomy and David Attenborough does for zoology, Sam Kean does for chemistry and physics TOGETHER. There were a few times when the author simplified technical explanations, which I think made it more confusing. For that reason, I almost gave this book a 4. However there were enough moments where my mind was completely blown that I decided it had to be a 5. The first chapter is boring, but it is well worth pushing through. (What is it with science and very bori...more
Nicole
Ah, chemistry, how I love thee. I was the crazy lady in college who loved chemistry. O-chem, P-chem, stoichiometry. It didn't matter. The rules of chemistry always seem so hard and fast, full of constants that are so small or large that you can't even fathom them. And, if nothing else, I do love predicability. But Kean's debut novel showed me a whole new side to the periodic table that made it seem less...pardon the pun...elementary.

Kean definitely has a way of making complex scientific ideas se...more
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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 Dak...more
More about Sam Kean...
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“Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius.” 33 likes
“Think of the most fussy science teacher you ever had. The one who docked your grade if the sixth decimal place in your answer was rounded incorrectly; who tucked in his periodic table T-shirt, corrected every student who said "weight" when he or she meant "mass", and made everyone, including himself, wear goggles even while mixing sugar water. Now try to imagine someone whom your teacher would hate for being anal-retentive. That is the kind of person who works for a bureau of standards and measurement.” 15 likes
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