• 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 Audiobook
  • Release date: 08-18-10
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (3,889 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

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Great Book, Great Narration, But...

"The Disappearing Spoon" does what many might think impossible. It makes chemistry (and physics) sound fun and exciting, not just a drab exploration of covalent bonds and nuclear half-life. Sam Kean explores each of the elements on the periodic table by telling about their weird and wacky properties, tells us stories about them, and tells us even more stories about the people who discovered them. He does it all with a great sense of humor. Would you ever expect to run across the word "bitchin" in a book about chemistry???

Sam Runnette does a fabulous job or narration. His style is very conversational and he know which parts of the book are funny rather than serious and emphasizes that. I will be looking for more of his narrations.

Now for the "but". I kind of wish I had read this book in print. It is so jam-packed with detail and has so many anecdotes that I found that I really missed stuff if my attention wandered for even a minute. I did so much rewinding that I probably added 1/3 to the length of the book. I think I could have focused better in print.

99 of 103 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Excellent, if unfocused

This is a well-done, well-read science book that uses the periodic table as an excuse to wander off into various scientific tangents and stories. Think Bill Bryson or James Burke or similar sorts of scientific and historical storytelling. Many of these stories are really interesting (such as the tale of the boy scout who built his own nuclear reactor in a shed), and there is enough variety to keep anyone interested. I also need to applaud Mr. Kean for sticking very closely to the science, he is careful not to exaggerate where other writers might, and he is quick to call out "pathological science" when he sees it.

The real weakness of this book is that it plays very fast and loose with its premise. It uses the table as an excuse for stories, not as a prime motivator. Once Mr. Kean is done with Mendelev and related stories central to the discovery of new elements, he happily goes on to cover subjects like bubbles, international standards for the kilogram, and other topics; often making some sort of tenuous connection (see, the kilogram was made of iridium!) This is not a flaw in the stories, however, and the book remains interesting throughout. A great science read.

136 of 144 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • James
  • Independence, VA, United States
  • 10-12-10


For the person who likes science. This book does an excellent job weaving science and world history together in a delightful audiobook. Some very good stories from the race to find new elements to world intrigue and how Colorado played a role in the World Wars. If science were taught like this, we would have many more budding scientists.

14 of 14 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Robert
  • Yamhill, OR, United States
  • 01-26-11

One great book

What a great book. It helps to have a background in physics or chemistry to fully appreciate this work. The science aspect is scholarly written and the book's construction made most interesting by the story-telling. Having a copy of the periodic table is helpful. I listened to this on my iPhone and quite handily had a free periodic table app available to refer to during the listening. It made the digesting of this work more meaningful and helped to more fully appreciate the beauty and elegance of the periodic table itself.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Kevin
  • Danbury, CT, United States
  • 09-15-10

A great introduction.

I came across this book at the absolute right time. I had recently decided I wanted to learn more about chemistry and signed on to my audible account to see what I could find. There was "The Disappearing Spoon" right in the New Release tab.
This book, while I agree that it's not super technical, is a great introduction to the periodic table of elements.
This book, and other books like it, just go to show that there are much better ways to introduce and teach these topics to future generations. I wish that my chemistry teacher in high school had made us read this book rather than your standard "Chemistry Textbook".
Think about it for a second. What is more interesting? Listening to your teach drone on about yet another element, it's atomic mass, it's reaction with other elements... blah blah blah, or hearing stories about boys building nuclear reactors, the stupidity of universities naming elements after themselves, and about how to kill Godzilla, should he ever grace our shores.
Thanks to Sam Kean for one more book to add to my collection of "Books to give my daughter when she comes to me and says Daddy, ________ is boring and I don't want to study it"

51 of 54 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars


As someone who genuinely enjoy and focused on studying Chemistry, this was quite an enjoyable listen. It was fun getting an interesting spin on the modern day periodic table and learning a bit more titbits of information that generally I'd glaze over in my reading or research. The narrator did a pretty good job, he sounds like that cool teacher that you might have in class, with an easy going feel who strangely gets you to learn and enjoy learning at the same time.

31 of 33 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Brian
  • Massillon, OH, United States
  • 10-13-10

Beyond Knowledge

I don't write reviews but I think people that didn't listen to the sample shouldn't have bought the book if they found the reader boring etc. I think the facts and the interesting stories that go along are great. A lot of fresh information in a great format. I think if you like books on history and science this defiantly was a great audio book.

12 of 13 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Rick
  • Annapolis, MD, United States
  • 11-14-10

A Home Run

I strongly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in science. Engaging, interesting, fun, and well read. Another review referred to James Burke and that is exactly what I thought of listening to this book. A real treat.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Alison
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 02-09-12

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!

15 of 17 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 12-11-15

The Disappointing Spoon

This audiobook is all about the periodic table of elements - and I reckon that’s a pretty good subject, with the potential to generate an interesting listen. I like books about popular science, which are informative and entertaining at the same time, without baffling you with too much difficult stuff.

But, for me, good popular science needs to have one essential element (please pardon the pun): A good popular science book needs to have a point, a purpose. There needs to be some central idea or theory that the author is trying to convey, and this purpose would normally be gradually developed, in a coherent fashion, as the book progresses.

This popular science book doesn’t tick this box. It bombards you with lots of information about the periodic table: the history, lots of tit-bits about where various elements fit in, lots of (mostly interesting) anecdotes about various scientists through the ages who’ve tinkered with chemistry.

But it’s a random hotch-potch of stories without a structure. It’s a Sunday Magazine supplement, a toilet book that you pick up and browse and you are momentarily titillated, then you put it down and you’ve forgotten all about it in seconds.

It was ok, but that is the best praise I can give it. It was a bit disappointing, and my concentration kept drifting off. Although I enjoyed some parts in a transient, superficial way, I would have to say I couldn’t really recommend this book.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful