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
Very Interesting, enlightening
This book is exactly what you think it’s about. The Periodic Table.
Dad, Dentist, Adventurer. Well... at least 2 of those.
Wonderful anecdotes about the discovery of each element. This book got me really interested in the history of science.
Very entertaining book about the periodic table of elements. I loved the way Kean connected so many fields here, from astrophysics to biology to the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, through events and people involved in the structuring of the table and the discovery and use of the various elements themselves. Great narration too.
One note: in all that I have read about Robert Falcon Scott's last Antarctic expedition, I have never heard it said that Titus Oates (unnamed in this book) "went insane and wandered off." That's a very misleading (and, from everything I've read, incorrect) discription of what actually happened, and even though it's just sort of a throw-away statement in the story Kean was telling here, it made me wonder what else he sort of...tweaked...to make things sound more dramatic. I might be totally nitpicky here, but...it just introduced a little doubt. Still, I very much enjoyed the book as a whole.
This is a brilliant blend of science, history, fun trivia and human interest stories. Much of what is in this book was unexpeted and a wonderful surprise -- like wandering around a museum and stumbling upon one riverting piece of art work after another.
I look forward to reading Mr. Kean's next book. No matter what the subject, I expect it to be fascinating.
Avid reader, love philosophy, fiction, everything!
Something most people would see as boring has been turned interesting and fun! This is a great book and you might even learn something!!! HIGHLY recommended.
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.
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