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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

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 by Sam Kean
Unabridged, 12 hr. 35 min.
Tantor Audio
Sean Runnette (Narrator)
August 18, 2010

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Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Audio download purchased through Audible

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 the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

We learn that Marie Curie used to provoke jealousy in colleagues' wives when she'd invite them into closets to see her glow-in-the-dark experiments. And that Lewis and Clark swallowed mercury capsules across the country and their campsites are still detectable by the poison in the ground. Why did Gandhi hate iodine? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium? And why did tellurium lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

From the Big Bang to the end of time, it's all in The Disappearing Spoon.

I’m not a huge science buff – I actually struggled a lot in my chemistry class. However, the one thing that I did enjoy from that class was learning about the elements in the periodic table. That was something I could manage to remember and made sense to me. So when I saw this book was about entertaining stories about the elements and their history or discovery I thought that it could be quite interesting.

The author presents these stories in a way that a person with a standard education would be able to enjoy them without feeling entirely lost – it is accessible science! There is obviously some level of science involved in this text, but Kean refrains from making the text too technical – which I was very thankful for. There are some moments, to be sure, where the chemical nature comes into play, but it usually isn’t critical to the understanding of the text. I just skimmed over these sections and did not feel like I lost any understanding by doing so. If you do happen to have a solid understanding of science, then I’m sure these more technical sections will only enhance your reading experience.

Chemical science can be very dry, but The Disappearing Spoon is anything but. There were funny stories (some that were laugh out loud and others that were more ironic) and at the same time they were chock full of information. I probably learned more about these elements than I ever learned in class and the parts I enjoyed the most were the history and discovery stories, more so than the qualities of the elements. I mean, where else will you learn that you can trace the stops of the Lewis and Clarke expedition by the mercury deposits from the “medicine” they took? I had fodder for conversations with my husband who is part of the medical field.

I do think this book will be more of a draw for those who enjoy science, but don’t let that dissuade you from checking the book out.


I am going to refrain from reviewing the actual audio production as I listened to this so long ago that I don’t remember the details of the narration.

If you would like to preview the story before reading it, why not try out this excerpt of the book?

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia


Also by Sam Kean

violinists thumb

The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by our Genetic Code

dueling neurosurgeons

The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

Find Sam Kean: Website | Twitter | Facebook



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