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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 Paperback – 6 Jun 2011
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"Kean...unpacks the periodic table's bag of tricks with such aplomb and fascination that material normally as heavy as lead transmutes into gold. A-"―Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly
"Kean's writing sparks like small shocks...he gives science a whiz-bang verve so that every page becomes one you cannot wait to turn just to see what he's going reveal next."―Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe
"[Kean turns] The Disappearing Spoon into a nonstop parade of lively science stories...ebullient."―Janet Maslin, New York Times
"Kean's palpable enthusiasm and the thrill of knowledge and invention the book imparts can infect even the most right-brained reader."―Christine Thomas, Miami Herald
"With a constant flow of fun facts bubbling to the surface, Kean writes with wit, flair, and authority in a debut that will delight even general readers."―Publishers Weekly
"Nearly 150 years of wide-ranging science...and Kean makes it all interesting. Entertaining and enlightening."―Kirkus
"Only once in a rare while does an author come along with the craft and the vision to capture the fun and fascination of chemistry. The Disappearing Spoon is a pleasure and full of insights. If only I had read it before taking chemistry."―Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt and Cod
"If you stared a little helplessly at the chart of the periodic table on the wall of your high school chemistry class, then this is the book for you. It elucidates both the meanings and the pleasures of those numbers and letters, and does so with style and dash."―Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"The Disappearing Spoon shines a welcome light on the beauty of the periodic table. Follow plain speaking and humorous Sam Kean into its intricate geography and stray into astronomy, biology, and history, learn of neon rain and gas warfare, meet both ruthless and selfless scientists, and before it is over fall head over heels for the anything but arcane subject of chemistry."―Bill Streever, author of Cold
About the Author
Sam Kean is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb and the forthcoming book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, and New Scientist and has been featured on NPR's Radiolab, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Sam Kean has an excellent structure upon which to delve into basic chemistry and physics. The Periodic Table of Elements names all the atoms known to man and out of which all things that matter (pardon the pun) are made. The elements are divided into broad categories that allow grouping in order to tell not only the history of the science stories behind their discovery, but also the history of man in many cases. Thus, we get general categories that describe structural and behavioral characteristics like the Noble Gases and Transition Metals, but also interesting groupings defined by civilization's usage such as Elements as Money (Gold, platinum and others) and atomic elements (which gives the author the chance to describe the Manhattan project as well as precursor discoveries).
This book will remind fans of Bill Bryson as "Brysonic" in its organization and style. Kean will often transgress into the idiosyncracies of the scientists and discoverors behind the elements. I don't know if great scientists are stranger than the average human, but if this grouping is reflective of the whole, scientists and discoverers and groundbreakers tend to be sharp characters (with an emphasis on both adjectives).
I also learned the basics of physics and chemistry. The author is excellent at laying out basic principles of structure and behavior in a way that I, a non-scientist, was able to understand and appreciate. It reminded me of Bryson's "A Short History of Everything" which I also though was excellent in the way it translated technical information for the non-technician.
In short, an informative and enjoyable work.
Kean’s fascination with the elements began with the shiny silver beads formed when he dropped the thermometers used to take his temperature during frequent childhood bouts of strep throat. “From that one element, I learned history, etymology, alchemy, mythology, literature, poison forensics, and psychology. “ As what seemed a sideline to scientific studies in college, he collected tales about the elements and “realized that there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table. At the same time, the table is one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind. It’s both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook.”
In his telling, the scientists and occasional con artists come alive. And the elements themselves step forward as characters. Who can resist an explanation of the carbon basis of life that contains the statement, “That promiscuity is carbon’s virtue”? Or an aside such as, “(When pitcher plants and Venus flytraps trap insects, it’s the bugs’ nitrogen they’re after.)” There are references to “poisoners’ corridor”, “malfunctioning molecules “and ”one oared rowboats”. One of the clearest explanations of the basic concept of electron shells is a bus metaphor.
True science that avoids the pop fiction version and makes the real thing fascinating reading.
The analogies and explanations of things as confusing and complex as the layering of electron shells and complex protein folding in terms which anyone can understand. Even though the book is intended to be read by those with little to no knowledge of chemistry, as a veteran of AP Chemistry I learned immense amounts from this book. Even if you know all there is to know about chemistry, this book is full of humor and history, and narrative all interwoven with a satisfying educational experience. The stories of the elements are ordered by topic, rather than time period or elemental number, which aids the natural feeling of the book- flowing from one story to another.
My personal favorite was the story of Mendeleev. A brilliant chemist, one of fifteen siblings, whose mother recognized his potential as a young boy, and rode 1400 miles on horseback just to admit her son to a university. After becoming a brilliant student, Mendeleev’s career became a race against other great scientists to create a comprehensive list of all of the elements known to man. But the difference between Mendeleev’s invention and the others of the time was that he included not only the elements known to man, but also those unknown. Mendeleev left gaps and blank spaces in his periodic table for the elements which had not yet been discovered. Not only did he create the most accurate periodic table yet, but he made accurate predictions of the properties of many of the missing elements. In one such case, he publicly denounced the discovery of a new element until the scientist redid his experiments to prove that Mendeleev was right...and he was.
I give this book five stars. There aren’t many negatives about this book. At times, I believed the book would slow down. Maybe it’s just because I enjoy such things, but there is always a description of someone’s life story, some political conflict of the time, some chemical or physical challenge which had to be overcome, or a fact I didn’t know - the book never seems to slow. The flow of the story is fantastic, it’s educational, and consistently engaging. This book is definitely going on my top ten. If you don’t like being bombarded with information, this book may not be for you, but give it a shot. It’s worth the time.