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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales…
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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the…

by Sam Kean

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 78 (next | show all)
Perhaps not everyone would find the history of the periodic table as fascinating as I do, but I really enjoyed this. Not all of the chapters are about the element's discovery; many are related stories of their discoverers' lives or the element's impact on history. You don't have to understand much chemistry to enjoy this, but it does help to have an interest in the subject to begin with. It's certainly accessible, but perhaps not universally engrossing. ( )
  melydia | Apr 18, 2015 |
Unshelved recommends it, and the reasons Chrissie didn't like it are ones that wouldn't bother me.
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Apr 14, 2015 |
I would use this book to contextualize/humanize the elements of the periodic table. Also, I could use it as part of a research project.
  ogroft | Apr 14, 2015 |
This book is a history of science based on the periodic table. Kean goes through the elements discussing their discovery, the stories of the scientists who discovered them, and the element's place in human society. A lot of the book is anecdotes about chemists, but they're good stories. There are also a lot of interesting connections, both among the elements and the people who work for them. A nice, easy-to-read popular science and history work that enlivens the periodic table for even the most curmudgeonly humanities major. ( )
  Othemts | Feb 16, 2015 |
Cleverly, Kean starts off gently, drawing us in with an elaborate explanation of the basic atomic theory we all learned in high school and making us feel smug. This is followed by a dozen or so chapters stuffed with fascinating, accessible anecdotes about the elements on our periodic table: their discovery, their discoverers, their fascinating (and sometimes freakish) properties, their times, triumphs, tribulations, and scandals. It’s amazing how much entertainment a competent storyteller can weave out of such seemingly inert material! This is, of course, because the actual course of scientific discovery is anything but inert, a tale of geniuses and idealists – yes - but also conmen, madmen, accidental heroes, villains and visionaries, politics, economics, philosophy, faith, greed, love, war, and passion, as Kean’s tales make abundantly clear.

Indeed, the subject matter was so diverting that I was nearly 300pgs into the story before I realized that somewhere along the way I had wholly shed my smug and was officially hanging on for dear life! Not Kean’s fault, technically speaking: the gradual ramping up in information density merely parallels the history of the periodic table itself, which began as the plaything of chemists but, as atomic numbers climbed inexorably past 100, has become more and more the servant of theoretical physicists. What a long way we travel from scientist practical jokes in chapter 3 (due to its relatively low melting point, spoons fashioned out of gallium dissolve when used to stir hot coffee – the “disappearing spoons” of the title) to this sentence plucked at random from chapter 19: “So if super-chemists someday create feynmanium-plus-one, un-tri-octium, would its inner electrons become time travelers while the rest of the atom sits pat?”

And yet, thanks to Kean’s relatively clear explanations and uncomplicated prose, even sentences like this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm or thwart my resolve. As I finished the final page and stared one last time at the periodic table handily reprinted in the end pages (now well-thumbed and soiled), I recognized that – yes - even the extra concentration required to comprehend the final chapters was worth it. Not only did The Disappearing Spoon keep me entertained, but thanks to the author’s clear and patient explanations I am now startlingly comfortable with topics I once imagined incomprehensible. I can’t wait to share my wealth of new anecdotes with friends and acquaintances! (Which, I realize as I write this, is probably either a damning indictment of my social skills or suggests the disturbingly high level of nerdiness within my social circle.) ( )
1 vote Dorritt | Oct 3, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kean, Samprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Staehle, WillCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As a child in the early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth - food, dentist's tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever - and if no one else was around, I'd talk anyway.
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Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
(from the book jacket) Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium (Cd, 48)? How did radium (Ra, 88) ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why did tellurium (Te, 52) lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?
The periodic table is one of our crowning scientific achievements, but it’s also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The fascinating tales in The Disappearing Spoon follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and every single element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.
Why did a little lithium (Li, 3) help cure poet Robert Lowell of his madness? And how did gallium (Ga, 31) become the go-to element for laboratory pranksters? The Disappearing Spoon has the answers, fusing science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the big bang through the end of time.
Haiku summary
Talk of chemistry / usually bores me to tears / But here's Godzilla! (MiaCulpa)

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The periodic table of the elements is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, obsession, and betrayal. These tales follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and all the elements in the table as they play out their parts in human history. The usual suspects are here, like Marie Curie (and her radioactive journey to the discovery of polonium and radium) and William Shockley (who is credited, not exactly justly, with the discovery of the silicon transistor)--but the more obscure characters provide some of the best stories, like Paul Emile François Lecoq de Boisbaudran, whose discovery of gallium, a metal with a low melting point, gives this book its title: a spoon made of gallium will melt in a cup of tea.--From publisher description.… (more)

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