Those of you who try but can’t always avoid grabbing handrails on subways and buses may be relieved to know that elements used by many transportation systems like copper and silver are naturally antibacterial. The structure and composition of the metal is somehow able to inactivate the bacteria, making it an ideal surface for things like…subway handrails.
This is the type of instantly lovable, immediately gratifying knowledge you get from Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, a fascinating column-by-column, row-by-row dissection of the periodic table. Kean must be commended for turning what could have been boring historical and scientific accounts into bite-sized human dramas filled with humorous moments and ironic twists. The predictable accounts of science heroes like Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev are given fresh new spins, while the tales of lesser-known scientists are told with gusto. Only in the last few chapters did things get a little heady for me, but I’m admittedly on a steep learning curve when it comes to atoms, electrons, neutrons, and the like.
The remarkably intriguing narration by Sean Runnette is the icing on the cake here. He had his work cut out for him even in good hands, the science could be overbearing for a narrator to effectively relay to the listener. Runnette gives weight to the text by employing an authoritative but gently understanding tone of voice. He doesn’t pose as the high school science teacher reading from the textbook, but instead as the calm and patient tutor willing to work with you until you understand. His David Strathairn-like voice works to keep you entertained even while discussing P-shells, superatoms, Molybdenum, and the causes of Japan’s Itai-itai disease. Runnette’s standout moments come when describing the constant bickering between scientists claiming ownership over element discoveries. He voices these sections with such giddy, tongue-in-cheek glee that the listener can’t help but chuckle along. This ability to reach across the periodic table into the common interests of non-science loving listeners is key to the success of Runnette’s narration. Armed with Runnette’s performance, The Dissappearing Spoon amounts to a captivating audio account of the history, science, and meaning behind the elements on the periodic table. Josh Ravitz
“The Disappearing Spoon is my favorite kind of science journalism: it reveals a hidden universe in the form of a thrilling tale.”
“Arthur C. Clarke once noted that truly advanced science cannot be distinguished from magic. Kean succeeds in giving us the cold hard facts, both human and chemical, behind the astounding phenomena without sacrificing any of the wonder — a trait vital to any science writer worth his NaCl.”
Science Magazine reporter Sam Kean reveals the periodic table as it’s never been seen before. Not only is it one of man's crowning scientific achievements, 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; 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.
©2010 Sam Kean (P)2010 Tantor
I enjoyed this tome but felt that there could have been more background on the "scandals" promised in the title. The reader was enjoyable to listen to and the history behind the formation of the periodic table was rather fascinating. I would have liked to hear a bit more dirt, however. Worth a listen, for sure
If you're the type of person that would find yourself nodding in agreement during a political discussion in any American university faculty room then you'll probably find this book contains enough of interest to be worth a listen. It reads like a good Discover Channel show only slightly more cerebral. I don't mean this pejoratively as I thoroughly enjoy a good Discover Channel show.
Unfortunately, my stomach was simply not strong enough to swallow all the shallow, smug, liberal moralizing with which Kean infects his book. Did you know capitalism was the cause of the Rwandan blood bath? Yes, yes, I know, money + greedy capitalists is the root of all evil, but does Kean have to preach this to me in a book about the periodic table? And of course there was the hand wringing over every scientist who ever contributed to developing weapons for his country along with the requisite liberal moral equivalence, as if developing better artillery for Hitler or nukes for the Soviet Union was morally equivalent to building a thermonuclear bomb for the United States. I was able to stomach these liberal staples, but the point at which I simply had enough was when when Kean made excuses for the many scientists who were apologists for the Soviet Union and for Stalin himself well into the 50's. These scientists had no excuse, but Kean tries to defend them nonetheless on the grounds that they mistakenly but understandably thought Stalin was a friend to science because Soviet scientists had more government funding than their western counterparts. I guess Kean felt compelled to defend them because he knew he would have been one of them had he lived during their era.
If you are a conservative, or even a liberal who expects an author to back up political opinions with at least a few inches of depth, then Kean's politics will poison this book for you. It's a shame, because he writes fairly well and were my stomach a little stronger I would have enjoyed listening to the rest of the book
This was a well researched book but I found many sections were hard to understand and my mind often wandered during some parts of the presentation. I enjoyed the Bill Bryson Book " A Short History of Nearly Everything" much much more. It covered many of the same topics in a much more entertaining style.
No. This was snooze-worthy. I kept going back to it just to see if it was as awful as I remembered and yup it was.
A better narrator would be a great choice.
I would focus a little more on the direct stories and people behind the elements without historical detours and other "fun facts."
A better and more consistent flow, either by how the narrative is structured or by taking a more historical timeline view.
The narrator was very good. Highly technical. Barely Comprehensible by a layman. I now can see the big picture intertwining physics and chemistry.
This book seems like a good idea. Take each element in the periodic table and tell the reader something interesting about that element. This would work better if there were anly six or eight elements. Unfortunately, there are over 100 elements. This cleaver enterprise gets dull very fast. I like chemistry. But I do not like loads and loads of unrelated facts.
There are no thematic ideas to tie this vast load of trivia together. It is like listening to the cards of Trivial Pursuit being read aloud. The first half dozen are interesting. After that you just tune out. Skip this book in favor of UNCLE TUNGSTEN by Oliver Sacks. That is a fascinating book with lots of chemistry in it.
This book is a light-hearted, superficial romp through the periodic table of the elements. "The Disappearing Spoon" is more entertaining than profound. And that's fine -- I think the author did not set out to write a deep, philosophical book. Don't expect a whole lot, and you won't be disappointed.
I thought there would be more about the people involved with the discoveries than there was. If you really like science and enjoy the academics of it, this is for you.
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