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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements | [Sam Kean]

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

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.
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Audible Editor Reviews

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

Publisher's Summary

The Disappearing Spoon is my favorite kind of science journalism: it reveals a hidden universe in the form of a thrilling tale.”
—BoingBoing

“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.”
Entertainment Weekly

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

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  •  
    Alison Austin, TX, United States 02-09-12
    Alison Austin, TX, United States 02-09-12 Member Since 2010

    Miss Construed

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Should be Required Reading"

    When you say "the periodic table" I'm sure it conjures up for most people a picture of a yellowed, dog-eared poster on the back wall of the chemistry lab with an oddly crenelated table and intimidating scientific notations. After experienceing an involuntary shiver of revulsion and then a sigh of relief they change the subject. This book could change that forever.

    Reading this book is like taking a Disney ride through the periodic table. You start with chemistry and physics, flirt with quantum mechanics, and catch glimpses of bubble science and much, much more. You visit all of the elements and hear their histories, the juicy gossip, the funny stories, the successes, and the failures.

    You'll meet the who's who of the scientific upper crust as well as the cracks and cranks. You will see the periodic table permeate every aspect of life and never look at ordinary objects the same way.

    Best of all, you'll enjoy every minute of it!

    10 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Aimee AUSTIN, TX, United States 04-24-13
    Aimee AUSTIN, TX, United States 04-24-13
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A four-year liberal arts degree in one book"
    Any additional comments?

    My father told me when I was going to a college that a great liberal arts education would prepare me to read the Sunday New York Times cover-to-cover and understand at least a little bit about all the topics. Now imagine a Sunday Times with only science articles. The Disappearing Spoon manages that education in one book -- alchemy, quantum physics, the search for intelligent life in the universe, the theory of warfare, and MUCH more, all encapsulated in one great journey through human greed, creativity, and achievement anchored by the periodic table. Fascinating, and I learned a lot but ended up expert in none, which felt just about right.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    James Columbus, OH, United States 10-30-11
    James Columbus, OH, United States 10-30-11 Member Since 2009
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    "Elemental For Anyone With An Interest In Science"

    I had heard about this book on NPR, when they interviewed the author. I truly enjoyed this exploration of the periodic table, and the elements. I wish high school chemistry had been this intersting. Sam Kean explores the history of many of the elements, from their discovery to modern day importance. Very informative and entertaining.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Terry A. Gray 10-21-11

    ever reader

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    "If you like science and fiction..."

    If you like stories about science, specifically centered on elements of the periodic table, you will love this book. They are not science stories, but great stories related to science. Along the way you will get a little science, but not so much. It's mostly about great stories, like why you can track the Lewis & Clark expedition by the mercury laxatives they took, why spoons were made from gallium, why Fleishman and Ponds, why they put bismuth in pepto, and on and on. The stories are only related by their chemical connection, but it all hangs together in a terrific collection performed excellently. Five stars for the stories, four for the performance. Very entertaining.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Fuzzy 02-20-11
    Fuzzy 02-20-11

    Fuzzy Logic

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    "VERY Interesting!"

    I am not a scientist nor have anything to do with the sciences. Yes, this book was way over my head in areas, but the stories of what each element can do and the personalities and careers of those that were involved are fantastic. I could turn around and retell the stories to my friends and make them interested.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kathy Davis, CA, United States 08-09-13
    Kathy Davis, CA, United States 08-09-13 Member Since 2008

    Newly retired, I am a reading fiend! I like many types of books, both fiction and non-fiction, with the exception of romance and fantasy

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Making science fun!"

    This is quite an interesting and informative book, written in a light and easy style, for the science-oriented person who thinks it would be fun to know more about the periodic table. What made it particularly engaging was the author's obvious delight with the subject matter and a great narrator who could share in that delight. When I first started listening to it, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it at all. But it flew by in a couple of days and I can say I was never bored.

    However--it would have been more coherent for me if I had a copy of the periodic table to refer to all the way along. For this reason only, I am wondering if this book might be better read in book form, so one could flip back easily to see the locations of the elements and their relationships.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    A. Hill Rocky Mountains 07-28-13
    A. Hill Rocky Mountains 07-28-13 Member Since 2012

    Renaissance reader

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "An Absolute Pleasure, Start to Finish."

    I loved this book! Didn’t want to finish it. Indeed, if the Periodic Table had an unlimited supply of elements (and Mr. Kean were willing to keep writing about them) I believe I could continue listening quite happily indefinitely.

    Some books are ideal for episodic listening. If you commute daily to and from work, for example, take your dog for a walk each morning, or perform any other repetitive task that doesn’t require your full conscious attention, it’s nice to allow the more creative part of your mind to drift off along a series of narrative byways in the company of a talented author like Sam Kean. It’s even better, when those byways are as fascinating and colorful as the histories Mr. Kean has unearthed about the elements that make up our natural world.

    Using Dmitri Mendeleev’s iconic Periodic Table as an organizing principle, Mr. Kean has concocted a delightful (and informative!) potpourri of science and history that should enthrall nearly any reader. You don’t have to be intrigued by a particular field of science or technology to appreciate the book. The science itself is fascinating; but the stories behind it are even more compelling. Readers who have a technical background needn’t worry either. Whether the topic is chemistry, atomic or subatomic physics, metallurgy, or any of a host of disciplines, Kean deftly balances rigorous theory with heuristic metaphor in a way that makes natural events seem plausible. This takes real skill as a writer. He anthropomorphizes atoms shamelessly to explain the role of valence electrons and dances deftly around the way orbital configuration produces transition elements. Normally I find this kind of hand waving offensive, but Kean makes it work without sounding dumb. In the book’s biographical introduction he reveals that he bounced from one field of study to another throughout high school and college, including a number of liberal-artsy types of major. It’s clear that he didn’t waste his time in any of them. Meanwhile the amount of factual and anecdotal information that he accumulated about elements and the people involved with them is staggering.

    I found only one instance in which Kean may have misconstrued things. In discussing the search for new elements, he refers to certain specimens “going nuclear”. By this he undoubtedly intends to say that a mass of fissionable material has gone “critical” (the correct term), which means that there’s enough of it in a given sample to produce more thermal neutrons than it absorbs. This allows the rate of induced fission to remain constant, as in a reactor, or (more likely) to increase, as in a bomb. Other than his use of the wrong word to describe the situation, there’s nothing wrong with this. In related discussions, however, Kean refers to specimens “going radioactive”, in one case speculating that this might happen, while the sample was sitting in someone’s lap. Unlike fission, which can be influenced by external events or by the amount of a specimen that’s present, radioactivity is a purely internal event. A nucleus or a subatomic particle that is subject to radioactive decay will do so in a manner that is predictable only in a statistical sense and is completely independent of any external influence. A radium nucleus or a chunk of elemental radium, for example, breaks down, because it’s unstable. It makes no sense to speak of its “going radioactive”, yet Kean seems to use the term this way on more than one occasion. Barring this one exception I found the science in The Disappearing Spoon to be quite accurate.

    The same superlatives apply to the narrative performance by Sean Runnette. Mr. Runnette has a very pleasant voice to begin with, but in addition, his choice of tone, pace, and inflection seem ideally suited to the material. Runnette’s reading greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book. This is particularly admirable in a work that contains so many difficult technical terms. In most cases I found Runnette’s pronunciation spot on. His only glaring error occurred early on, when he mistook the Latinate two syllable “pace” pronounced pä-chā, meaning “with deference to” for the single syllable English pās, meaning “gait” or “walk”. Under the circumstances I’d call that a forgivable mistake.

    Overall The Disappearing Spoon is one of the most enjoyable audio books I’ve encountered. In my opinion, if you like scientific subjects, you’ll love it too. Even if you’re not wild about science, I’d recommend giving it a whirl. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael Pittsburgh, PA, United States 06-13-13
    Michael Pittsburgh, PA, United States 06-13-13 Member Since 2011

    I am a Physics and Engineering student.

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    "Enjoyable Journey"

    I enjoyed this book; the story was excellent. It takes you through the periodic table, from a historic point of view. The reader was well above average and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in chemistry. I learned many interesting facts about the elements that were not in my school books. It is also a great companion book to listen to while taking a chemistry class. That is what I did, and it made me even more interested in the class than I already was.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Barry Petaluma, CA, United States 04-23-13
    Barry Petaluma, CA, United States 04-23-13 Member Since 2006

    My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Quick! How many elements can you name?"

    I had long been curious about all those other elements beyond the 20 or so the average person can name, but I had never realized how important a role the period table itself had played in helping them all to be discovered. This book tells that story. But it goes much further than that. This is a collection of so many cool stories about the discovery of the elements, the people who discovered them, and the uses to which some of these elements have been put. War, poison, jealousy, rivalries, friendships, love affairs and many other factors come into play here. This is a very human story of the lurching story of scientific progress. Highly recommended.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Justin casper, WY, USA 04-20-13
    Justin casper, WY, USA 04-20-13 Member Since 2006

    Being a heavy equipment operator with long night shifts, good books are essential to me.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Fun info that keeps your intrest"

    I enjoyed this book and recommend it, with that said there were a few parts that took effort to get through. If you enjoy science you will no doubt like this book as I have, click on add to cart and enjoy.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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