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

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
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Aug 13, 10

Read from August 10 to 12, 2010

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 you, which allows you to ‘escape’ mentally just as you are physically from that 50-hour, weekly cubicle career and hateful commuter traffic.

The book catalogues the 200 year history of the piecemeal development of the periodic table in chemistry. Wait, this is not your high school chemistry class! Sam Kean uses the most idiosyncratic, unusual, serendipitous, and funny events to tell this story. You learn as much about the brilliant, boisterous, bi-polar, bastardly, and braggadocio scientists as you learn about each element on the periodic table. Each of 19 chapters pulls together several periodic elements and outlines their unexpected similarity and relatedness--atomically, quantumly and culturally. And the narrative moves fluidly back and forth through time to capture the relevant history of each element. The book highlights discoveries that are still being made, current as of late 2009.

Strontium, Molybdenum, Ruthenium, Francium, Ytterbium. Neptunium, Berkelium, Californium, Lawrencium. What are you all about? How were you discovered? Why are you so important? And why the heck are you so rare?

This is neat science told in a fun and effervescent way. There are some awesome, awe-inspiring, and yet sometimes pedestrian, elements out there. Science ofttimes moves forward in jumps and spurts, and Kean is quick to relate how it moves chaotically, unexpectedly, bizarrely, and accidentally. The author reviews not just core chemistry but also history, physics, cosmology, and psychology. The scientists and their Rube Goldberg experiments are as interesting as the results. Periodic elements are really cool (yes, I actually said that). They’re phenomenal, toxic, powerful, rare, ephemeral, magical, radioactive, and have the most interesting relationships to each other. We’re told why, when, and how they’ve been used and abused through history, and how they shepherded great leaps in the advancement of human civilization.

The Disappearing Spoon is quick, light reading out in the sun. It handles complex theory in a comfortable, approachable way. Kean uses good rhythm in the book, chapters of uniform length, and a bit of humor to bring it all home. He pulls it off effectively--Mr Wizard meets chaos theory. Sixth grade, mall, ‘wow’-science is discussed right next to the paragraph about how to produce absolute zero or 35 million degrees, both of which, incidentally, are created by lasers.

In the end, you’ll learn a little, laugh a little. You may not remember anything from this book 2 years from now, but you will retain this: elements are neat as hell, and thank goodness for chemists and physicists.

New words: depilatory, eluted
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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Philip I'm recommending my librarians buy me a copy today. And then I'll pass it around to the Science teachers - if it's as good as you say it is. (Which I don't doubt.)

Your review makes it sound like one of Mary Roach's books. Have you read any of her stuff?


Jason Phillip, this is a great, great read for high school kids, and the author is young and trendy, so the language is appropriate for your students. Despite his age the author has several degrees in chemistry, and has followed developments in the field for different magazines.


message 3: by Praj (new) - added it

Praj Excellent! Where was Sam Kean when i was in high school, memorizing the chemical properties of Copper?


Jason Praj,

Kean discusses a growing movement among scientists that call for a revolutionary change in the current periodic table because it's so antiquated. Now that science can peer deep into sub-atomic particles, the traditional relationships between elements, displayed in those nice columns at the big atomic level, represent a lessening degree of relatedness each year. There's talk about a 3-dimensional table or a Mobius table, something that can incorporate all that anti-matter out there. Stay tuned...


message 5: by Praj (new) - added it

Praj That would be a great change to the mundane periodic tablets.My chemistry teacher was a nun with the most horrendous facial expressions, scared the daylights out of me.:D Now if told that Ruthenium (Ru) helped the Parker Pens crew make millions,who would forget this money making element.isn't it?


Jason 1951, the Parker Pen is modernized by the use of a pure Ruthenium writing nib. It's been called the 'most perfect pen in the world. In today's dollar, it's delivered $$billions$$ in sales. There's a picture in the book.


message 7: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Neato. I heard about this book on NPR. They were telling the disappearing spoon prank, but I can't recollect which element it was. Something with a phase transition, very near room temperature, obviously, but I'm too lazy to bust out the periodic table, despite the praises sung of it here.


Jason The spoon's made of gallium, melting point of 84 degrees F. In an air conditioned room, set the gallium spoon next to a cup of coffee. Gallium looks like stainless steel. Stir the coffee, and the spoon dissolves.

But that's the last clue I provide about the book.


message 9: by Reese (new)

Reese I must be having a senior-in-high-school moment. I saw "neat science," "awesome," "really cool," and "neat as hell" in a review; and I still liked it.

I'm reading DEWEY -- and not to a group of children. Second childhood came earlier than I predicted.


message 10: by Carol (new)

Carol Neman Jason, NPR, a young author and the promise of finding out about famous personalities' flaws...who could ask for more! I'm marking it TBR...


message 11: by Brodiew (last edited Sep 23, 2010 10:46PM) (new)

Brodiew Thanks for wonderfully encouraging and accessible review, Jason. I stumbled on the title here at goodreads, but your review has sealed my intent to read it. I appreciat that.


message 12: by Shell (new)

Shell Anyone who enjoyed this book might also enjoy "The Story of San Michele" by Axel Munthe, an autobiography of a man most of us have never heard about, but who led a fascinating and gifted life.


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