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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales…

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

by Sam Kean

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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 |
This is a fascinating book about the elements placed in the context of their discovery and their impact on everything. I liked how Kean groups the elements in varous contexts, such as medicine and money. ( )
  krin5292 | Aug 24, 2014 |
This was a really interesting and somewhat fun listen. It went through the table of the elements and joining them with fun stories. I think this would be a great "must read" for teens learning of the table, since it painted a picture for each element. ( )
  yougotamber | Aug 22, 2014 |
Sam Kean is not a chemist, and he seems to have had little help from a chemistry-literate editor in writing this collection of stories about most of the elements of the periodic table. To a certain extent, his chatty and colloquial style helps to bring chemistry to an audience that is science-phobic (the c-word does not appear in the title or subtitle, presumably for this reason). On the other hand, he has thrown together a bunch of anecdotes without much regard for their credibility and many of the analogies he uses to explain science are mis-aimed. For example, when describing how atomic clocks work, Kean says that cesium atoms play the role of the mainspring of a clock or watch. In fact, they are analogous to the balance wheel or the pendulum. He says that lithium batteries in a pocket full of change can short out, causing a dangerous amount of heat. This is said to be a result of the reactivity of lithium. Well, that is sort of true. But a mercury battery can be shorted the same way, with the same result, despite the fact that mercury is not known for its reactivity. Describing Pasteur's work on the chirality of tartaric acid, he claims that a beam of light from a vertical slit shone into a solution of one of the isomers will deviate away from its original orientation. Intrepid experimentalists who try this will be disappointed, and those who merely read about it will have swallowed a serious misconception. It was frustrating to me that he republished the story of the Radioactive Boy Scout (Hal's Pick of October, 1998), dressing it in scientific respectibility. Kean's organization of the book is idiosyncratic, to say the least ("Elements of War", "How Elements Deceive", and equally uninformative chapter titles), and his descriptions of elemental properties are very often confused with those of their compounds. Kean also does not understand the difference between monochromaticity and coherence as laser properties. Despite its many, many shortcomings, chemistry teachers may find "The Disappearing Spoon" to be a useful collection of anecdotes, but caveat emptor. ( )
2 vote hcubic | Jul 27, 2014 |
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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.
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.
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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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