• The Disappearing Spoon

  • And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
  • By: Sam Kean
  • Narrated by: Sean Runnette
  • Length: 12 hrs and 35 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Release date: 08-18-10
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio
  • 4.2 (3,510 ratings)

Regular price: $24.49

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Editorial 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

What members say

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  • Overall
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Simply Amazing

I'm not a scientist and was a bit concerned that this would be way over my head - but I was intrigued with 20 minutes and could not put it down. I had no idea about how cool it is to find out about the history of the discovery of the elements, the creation of the periodic table and so many, many - many interesting facts leading up to the creation and discovery process!

Fascinating! A recommended read even if you don't study science.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Who would have thought the periodical table......

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Absolutely, it's a whole new world ....

Would you recommend The Disappearing Spoon to your friends? Why or why not?

Absolutely....I've never read anything like it!

What about Sean Runnette’s performance did you like?

Kept me wanting more!

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No

Any additional comments?

Great!

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Very technical

Interesting but very technical. I was expecting a more pedestrian science books which would give interesting facts and properties of elements. Not a college level writing.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
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  • Sandra
  • Goffstown, NH, United States
  • 03-30-13

You don't have to be a scientist to read this book

I am not a scientist, not even close. I barely passed high school chemistry and only vaguely remember the periodic table. Yet, I have always like scientific concepts and history. I found this book fascinating. I learned so much about the periodic table in a fun and interesting manner. I loved the history and anecdotes behind the discovery of the elements. It was through this story telling that I was able to really understand and appreciate the science of the periodic table and elements. I truly recommend this book.

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  • Bailey
  • EL LAGO, TX, United States
  • 03-25-13

periodically clever

I really enjoyed this book. It's one of those great books that riffs on a simple theme, in this case the periodic table, and pulls in stories from all over - science, history, trivia. The author loves his language a little too much for my taste in places, and is a little too clever at times, but I'd rather have a rich dessert than something plain. Sean Runnette does an admirable job most of the time, making me wince only a few times, like when he mispronounces "kludge", and occasionally his sentence fragments have the wrong emphasis, and so miss the point of the sentence, but again, I've got no major complaint. The one error in the book that I heard is when the author states that our "galaxy" has 9 planets, when he no doubt meant to say "solar system". The text is full of "Author's Note" asides which are enjoyable little detours and details.
If you like science books in the vein of Simon Winchester, for instance, you'll enjoy this book.

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Embrace your inner Geek!

What made the experience of listening to The Disappearing Spoon the most enjoyable?

The author/narrator is a joy to listen to. Brings science to life. Who thought the elements would be wounderous (or fun?)

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

No other book comes to mind.

Which character – as performed by Sean Runnette – was your favorite?

No characters-just narration done perfectly.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

Science is f-n awesome!

Any additional comments?

Great book, don't hesitate. Kids are doing a relisten with me and beg for a few more minutes at the end of each chapter. Great facts to start any adult conversation as well....No regrets-science is awesome!

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This is a book for geeks and non-geeks

What did you love best about The Disappearing Spoon?

I am a geek and just loved all the interesting stories that connected to the much beloved periodic table!

Who was your favorite character and why?

There were too many wonderful characters in this book to pick just one. I am a fan of Rosalind Franklin who was robbed of a much deserved Nobel Prize.

Which character – as performed by Sean Runnette – was your favorite?

N/A

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

I was obsessed and listened at every opportunity.

Any additional comments?

If the educational system taught such subjects like this, high schoolers would learn the stuff. This would be a great text for a non-science major needing a science elective. I bought Sam Kean's latest and will start on it very soon.

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  • Trisha
  • Rochester, NY, United States
  • 03-11-13

wishing i never dropped out of high school chem

If you could sum up The Disappearing Spoon in three words, what would they be?

What a great way to look at and learn about such an overwhelming and large topic. Puts the elements in their place and makes them exciting obtainable and more understandable.

Have you listened to any of Sean Runnette’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

I haven't listened to anything (that i know of) by Sean Runnette but will again.

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

Wonder and amazement

Any additional comments?

Should be listened to by budding and not so budding chemist alchemist and other such inquisitive minds.

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  • R. Klein
  • Rocketville, Maryland - USA
  • 03-08-13

Better Living Through Chemistry?

An enjoyable book that weaves together tales of the Periodic Table. Not only does the book describe the order of the table, and it's development, but interesting anecdotes about many of the elements contained, such as tales of discoverers, of controversies, of mistaken identities (of elements), and very interesting historical facts. I really enjoyed reading about how the chemistry of dyes led to the first antibiotic therapies - the sulfa drugs, how radium was discovered, how elements combine, how they're separated. And about the whole competitive area of research that is centered around finding new elements! Who knew!?

The story-telling style makes it easy to understand and stay focused. That's important because some of the chemistry can be a little complex. But it doesn't bog down the book or the reader.

I found myself going to Google several times to find out more about the chemistry and the people described in this book.

I almost ordered a gallium kit off Amazon to make my own disappearing spoon! I still might. Who knew so much fun with chemistry was so within reach!?

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Great combination of science and history!

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes.

What did you like best about this story?

Learning the obscure history behind each element.

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

I can listen while on road trips!

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Sorry, thats just not my style..

Any additional comments?

Highly recommend it!