• 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 out of 5 stars 4.2 (3,693 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
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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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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By Ethan M. on 08-31-10

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.

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128 of 130 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Henny Button on 09-18-10

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.

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74 of 76 people found this review helpful

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