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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales…

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the… (edition 2011)

by Sam Kean

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1,536744,792 (3.91)97
Title:The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Authors:Sam Kean
Info:Back Bay Books (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:science, chemistry, elements, Kindle, DDCC

Work details

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 (Author)

  1. 20
    The elements : a visual exploration of every known atom in the universe by Theodore W. Gray (DetailMuse)
  2. 00
    Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (Katya0133)
    Katya0133: Uncle Tungsten focuses on the author's boyhood love of chemistry and not on the stories of many different people, but both describe a very human relationship with chemical elements.
  3. 00
    Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (DetailMuse)
  4. 00
    The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus by John Emsley (cmbohn)
    cmbohn: In depth about phosphorous, really interesting stuff.
  5. 11
    A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (amyblue)

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Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
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. ( )
1 vote hcubic | Jul 27, 2014 |
Zoomed through this book. I shall have to skim through it again before giving it back. It has really extended the physics I have been reading about into chemistry. A great bridge between quantum physics and multiverses and the real world. (If it is real!) It's a jokey book with lots of human and historical interest as well as the chemistry/physics of the periodic table and I loved the mix and learned a lot. ( )
  Ma_Washigeri | Jun 17, 2014 |
Short chapters about the history and properties of various elements. Suitable for assigning individual chapters for short reads.
  MartyBriggs | Jun 11, 2014 |
Summary: The Disappearing Spoon is a history of the periodic table, and the elements it contains.

No, wait, come back!

This book is the history of chemistry, yes, but it is not technical at all, and is much more focused on the people involved, and how the realms of chemistry have intersected with the course of human history. The first part of the book ("Orientation: Column by Column, Row by Row") is the most focused on the pure science, explaining what the periodic table is, what makes one element different from another, and how their structure determines not only where they are on the table, but also what properties they will have. But even here, there's an emphasis on Mendeleev and the other scientists who figured these relationships out. From there, the book talks about different elements grouped more by their impact on civilization than their chemistry. There are chapters on nuclear fission and the history of the atomic bomb, on elements and medicine, on poisons, on money (including a possible chemical explanation for King Midas's mythical golden touch), and finally some chapters on the current and future state of chemistry as it moves beyond the confines of the periodic table.

Review: I thought this book was great. It is admittedly right up my alley - I love this kind of microhistory, plus toss in the history of science, and a ton of great trivia, and I am a happy girl. And while I am a scientist, I am not a chemist - I've taken plenty of chemistry courses, but the most recent of them was… 13 years ago? - so I was thrilled by Kean's straightforward explanations of how chemistry works, which is understandable to the layperson without sacrificing scientific accuracy (which is a devilishly tricky balance to achieve!)

"Oxygen, as element eight, has eight total electrons. Two belong to the lowest energy tier, which fills first. That leaves six left over in the outer level, so oxygen is always scouting for two additional electrons. Two electrons aren't so hard to find, and aggressive oxygen can dictate its own terms and bully other atoms. But the same arithmetic shows that poor carbon, element six, has four electrons left over after filling its first shell, and therefore needs four more to make eight. That's harder to do, and the upshot is that carbon has really low standards for forming bonds. It latches onto virtually anything." (And there you have at least the first two weeks of an organic chemistry class, in a nutshell.)

So: this book was remarkably readable and straightforward in presentation. But it was also readable in terms of its content: it contains tons of interesting information and fascinating stories, amenable to reading in short chunks, but also always easy to pick back up and read more. I loved learning about how our knowledge of chemistry came about, especially in the age before fancy lab equipment and high-powered computers. I loved learning about where the term "computers" came from in the first place. Lise Meitner's story both fascinated me and made me sad (everyone always points to Rosalind Franklin as an example of women in science being passed over for Nobel Prizes, but Meitner is a much better example, since she was still alive at the time that work she contributed to received the award.) My mind was blown by some of the theoretical and cutting-edge physics and chemistry introduced in the latter chapters. (Like: why are mathematical constants constant? What if, somewhere in this universe - or another one - π was equal to 3.14158 instead of 3.14159? I can't quite wrap my head around it, but it's fun to try!) And I gleaned tons of tidbits to add to my store of trivia (for example, the process behind why you sometimes find a really old Hershey's Kiss with that weird powdery brownish-grey stuff on it is the same process that may have doomed Scott's expedition to the South Pole). And really, what more can I ask out of a book? 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Loved it. Highly recommended to anyone who likes microhistories, whether you're a scientist or not. And if you're not, please don't be daunted by the chemistry; Kean handles it very clearly, and makes it relevant to the other far-flung bits of history. ( )
1 vote fyrefly98 | May 10, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kean, SamAuthorprimary 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.
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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