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
It's all about the history of element discovery, but we never learn how the elements were actually discovered. And yet the author somehow found the time to discuss the Drake equation and other barely-irrelevant asides. I found that very irritating. Plenty of interesting stories, though, and a great description of the periodic table and the physics behind it.
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 book had some interesting parts and could have been pretty good but ... it was tough to follow. As written text it may have been better but in audio format I had trouble trying to follow the authors line of thinking. Finally, the title is overdone. Not a terrible book. Just not good.
If it had a storyline or interesting facts for someone other than a Chemistry major
He read well
For a book that aimed to step through the periodic table, it was disjointed and scattered. There did not seem to be any real direction to the book.
I thought some of the anecdotes were very interesting and entertaining.
Definitely disappointment. I expected a more organized approach. The author hopped between elements, stories, and just had no real direction. It could have been so much better.
Didn't read the printed version
I didn't finish. Too technical
Not my cup of tea
In, what I suspect is, an attempt to make the book the most readable to the most people, basic scientific words are morphed into everyday street vernacular. The awful effect being that meanings are changed and false statements ensue - the inescapable irony being the further muddling of understanding. Picture Monet with large color blocks instead of points of color.
The Book itself is great. For those who like this kind of thing, the book offers a good deal of detail without becoming pedantic. The narrator however leaves much to be desired. His voice is weak, his use of accents inconsistent and the delivery is, well, it detracts from the book.
I like to get into the book without being aware of the narrator - the best can do this, keep you engaged while never knowing they are there. This person is not one of the best.
So book - 4 stars. Narrator 2 stars. You do the math
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