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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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  •  
    C. Mendez NYC 10-31-12
    C. Mendez NYC 10-31-12 Member Since 2009

    lady_akemi

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Not a book to soak up in one sitting..."
    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    No. This book was a great commuter read. It was clever and entertaining and could hold my attention. However, it was also very heavy on the facts, and some of the anecdotes were a bit involved. After about half an hour of reading I was happy to take a break, which made it just about the perfect book to read while traveling to work or the gym.


    Any additional comments?

    I've always been a chemistry nerd, but I was never a science major and my theoretical science education pretty much ended my freshman year of college. I really enjoyed this opportunity to revisit the periodic table in a context other than a textbook. I had a number of fun "aha!" moments while reading this book, and it made me want to go out and read more on this subject.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    david chesapeake, VA, United States 10-06-12
    david chesapeake, VA, United States 10-06-12 Member Since 2009

    A fellow listener inclined to share my opinion on these productions. Maybe even inspire someone toward a powerful, or educational audiobook!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Loved it"

    This is a great book. I was looking for a book about scientific and historical info that I can have fun reading and sharing with others afterward...I did just that. It is organized pretty interestingly, with the formation of the periodic table bringing rise to fun tidbits about the people responsible for it, and other stories relating to the elements as they are being added to it. Small biographies throughout about people you may or may not already know, but with fun facts that are new(for me) and exciting.
    I have listened to almost every single title under the Physics section in Audible.com. Out of the one hundred and eighty-some books, this is top fifteen. It is one of the few that I windup revisiting when waiting for something new to come out in this section. All you need has been said, click the add-to-cart. No regrets with this one!

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    mike 08-13-12
    mike 08-13-12 Member Since 2010
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    "A nerdy delight (even for the non-nerdy)"

    The Disappearing Spoon was a fun read, as nerdy as that may sound. The author, Sam Kean, uses the elements of the periodic table to introduce some random facts and great stories behind the elements discovery or some of the challenges experienced by the scientists that discovered them. The result is a collection of tales that inspire one to seek a greater understanding of the physical world around them and take greater interest in the technological wonders of our 21st century existence. That’s what I was hoping to get out of the book. What I didn’t expect was also to be challenged to be more observant of the dangers of acquiring these wonders. The environmental and socio-political costs of these discoveries are also brought out (and of course a new respect for the science department of USC at Berkley).

    The narrator, Sean Runnette, was perfect for this book. His voice and demeanor perfectly captured the calm yet intrigued tone of your favorite high school chemistry teacher; the one that made the worst class exciting and kept you hanging on the details of every story.

    One drawback of the book was that it got my mind racing too much, and the segues between the elements/stories weren’t always clear. Frequently I found myself daydreaming about ideas and concepts conjured up from the narrative, and when I had returned to reality, I had missed half of the next story. But even when I went back, I noticed that the lines separating where one story ends and another begins we're kind of fuzzy.

    Another drawback was slightly too much talk about the make up of the elements. All of the electron jumping talk grew to be a bit much after a while. I understand why it had to be in there but toward the end of the book I didn’t need to see the math anymore. I just wanted the “captain dummy speak”.

    While it was a little heavier than most would probably like for a summer read, it was still pretty great.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    bracken mocksville, nc, United States 12-13-11
    bracken mocksville, nc, United States 12-13-11 Member Since 2011
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    "EXCELLENT! I can listen to it over and over."

    It is just so well written, informative, funny- an all time favorite for sure. I love the way it charts the periodic table of the elements and gives little insights and back stories on them. I have learned alot from and am constantly entertained by this wonderful book. No matter how many listens it never gets old.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Keith Colorado Springs, CO, United States 12-04-11
    Keith Colorado Springs, CO, United States 12-04-11
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    "Packed with Interesting History"

    This book wanders seemingly aimlessly throughout history and through the various elements in the periodic table... and that's not at all a bad thing! The tales of discovering elements, various uses of those elements, and even scientific achievements only marginally related to any specific element, such as the discovery of DNA, are both fascinating and very educational. I learned many interesting new facts about both science and the people behind the discoveries.

    This will be one of the few audiobooks I can enjoy listening to multiple times.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Heidi Maple Valley, WA, United States 11-12-11
    Heidi Maple Valley, WA, United States 11-12-11 Member Since 2011

    I read epic sci-fi and historic fiction, good non-fiction science, classic philosophy, history and little bits of what blows through my ears

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    "The first time I have wept over the periodic table"
    If you could sum up The Disappearing Spoon in three words, what would they be?

    Enlightening, endearing, invigorating


    What other book might you compare The Disappearing Spoon to and why?

    The Disappearing Spoon has a similar level of comprehensiveness, scholarship and careful analysis as The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker but perhaps with even more love of its subject seaming the joins of its argument. Both dusted, uncluttered and cleaned up my mental shelves and helped me remember why I love mankind.


    What does Sean Runnette bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Sean is clearly dearly fond and understanding of the work he narrates. I can not imagine a more personable reading.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    I laughed, wept, smiled stupidly, stared slack-jawed and wide-eyed throughout this listening.


    Any additional comments?

    If you have any interest in science at all listen to this book and then get it for someone you love.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David MADISON, AL, United States 10-26-11
    David MADISON, AL, United States 10-26-11
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    "A Differing Way to Look at History"

    I really enjoyed this audiobook; the narrator did an excellent job. The book itself seems to meander about, almost like listening to a grandparent tell a story with tangents and jumping around a bit. Fun and intriguing, and an interesting walk through history and science and how they are indeed rather tightly knit together.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    anna Chico, CA, United States 09-20-11
    anna Chico, CA, United States 09-20-11 Member Since 2003
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    "I just fell in love with science"

    If history, or science, or psychology, or sociology, or political science, or economics are of any interest to you, you must read this book. I had no idea the history of scientific discoveries is so captivating. This author, Sam Kean, looks at both the history and the science of the discovery, function, and use of the periodic table. He clearly and insightfully explains scientific concepts that I never was able to see are really easy to grasp. This book is freaking awesome and I hardly even made it through high school chemistry! It turns out that all those serious scientific minds of history who developed the periodic table and experimented with it were all rather crazy and intensely interesting.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Irfan Khan 09-04-11
    Irfan Khan 09-04-11 Member Since 2009
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    "Taking the bitters out of Chemistry Class"

    Listening to this wonderful, funny, wry book (and pitch-perfect performance) I couldn't help but consider how poorly the grand adventure of Chemistry is treated in high school. The key to great reads on the history of science is balancing the explanation of the science with the context of the humans struggling to reach or name their undiscovered country. This book succeeds in the way "A Short History of Nearly Everything" succeeds: by contextualizing even the Nobel in such interesting and often tragic accounts that you're left feeling truly in awe of not just the discoveries, but the discoverers as well. These flawed yet able heroes have been done very poor service by standard teaching but this book does a great job of setting things right.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Matthew 08-17-11
    Matthew 08-17-11
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Grand and Fascinating"

    This was a thoroughly enjoyable listen. The format of the book - with historical anecdotes about each of the elements - makes it easy to listen to in bits and pieces while the skillful writing stitches all the stories together if you prefer to read it straight through. Sean Runnette's narration is excellent.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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