The Disappearing Spoon

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The Disappearing Spoon
The Disappearing Spoon(Book Cover) by Sam Kean Published 2011.jpg
AuthorSam Kean
CountryUnited States
PublishedJuly 12, 2010 (hardback)
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
Media typePrint, e-book, audiobook
Pages400 pages (hardback)
ISBN0316051640 (hardback)

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, is a 2010 book by science reporter Sam Kean. The book was first published in hardback on July 12, 2010 through Little, Brown and Company and was released in paperback on June 6, 2011 through Little, Brown and Company's imprint Back Bay Books.


The book focuses on the history of the periodic table by way of stories showing how each element affected the people who discovered the elements, for either good or bad. People discussed in the book include those such as scientist Marie Curie, whose discovery of radium almost ruined her career, and the writer Mark Twain, whose short story “Sold to Satan” featured a devil who was made of radium and wore a suit made of polonium. Also discussed is Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a German-born American theoretical physicist who earned a Nobel Prize in Physics for her groundbreaking work, yet continually faced opposition due to her sex.

Chapter 1[edit]

"Geography of elements": Sam Kean begins this book by explaining the basics of the periodic table and how it works. He explains the set-up of the table and why it is modified the way it is. He emphasizes the importance of its organization and the reasons to why it must be this way. He discusses how the periodic table would not function if it weren't for the layout. He states that an elements position describes its function and strength. He describes the table of elements as a castle and the elements as bricks to build this castle. He then discusses how the periodic table contains and is organized into metals, gases, noble gases, halogens, etc.

Kean also discusses how how ions work overall. He describes how ions are made when atoms connects with electrons by either giving electrons or taking electrons to another molecule to obtain a net electrical charge. His states the importance the net electrical charge has on the elements and the period table placement. He covers the electron shells and how certain elements hide electrons and don't share and others do share. Kean describes electron behavior as being the guiding point to what forms the period table. Toward the end of this chapter he speaks of Maria Goeppert-Mayer and her contributions to science.

Chapter 2[edit]

"The fathers of the periodic table"

In this chapter, the author focuses on the relationships between carbon, silicon, and germanium. He explains how carbon is the backbone of amino acids and the building blocks to everything. He discusses that because of carbon, amino acids all stick together. Then, he describes the carbon element and how it wants to fill its outer energy level with eight electrons so it attaches to four atoms since carbon already has four atoms.

Next Kean describes silicon. In general he states that they are cousins because silicon mimics carbon in the sense that it also seeks to attach to four more atoms to fill its energy levels. The big issue that silicon encounters is that silicon doesn't have the life-sustaining abilities like carbon to attach to oxygen. Silicon dioxide can be fatal and carbon dioxide isn't. Moving forward in this chapter Kean starts to describe Germanium and its similarities to silicon. Both of these elements are semiconductors and because of this they can be used for technological purposes. Sam describes Germanium as "The black sheep of the family" because silicon is used for the technology instead of germanium. Unfortunately for Germanium, silicon provided a much better use for electronics and was used when men were sent to the moon and when computers and cell phones where made instead of germanium.

Chapter 3[edit]

"All in the family: The Genealogy of elements"

The author examines [Bunsen] and his history. Bunsen had passion for arsenic but an explosion left him half-blind for the rest of his life and because of this he created the Bunsen burner. He discusses many people who contributed to the periodic table, including [Mendeleev], the man accredited for creating the first periodic table. Mendeleev predicted other elements that were yet discovered. He put the 62 known elements into columns and rows but he wasn't the only scientist to attempt this. [Lothar Meyer] also worked on his own periodic table. Mendeleev had left blanks in his table where the lanthanides are because he didn't know what elements were to go there. The missing elements were later found in the mine called Ytterby in Sweden. Researchers such as [Gadolin] isolated clusters of lanthanides along with many scientists who made the trip to Ytterby to find the missing elements. Overall seven lanthanides elements were found and six of them were predicted by Mendeleev's table of elements.

Chapter 4[edit]

"Where atoms come from: "We are all star stuff""

In this chapter the author talks about theories of the origins of elements and discusses the big bang theory and how all elements were created. He then discusses the confusion about big bang caused by research of the stars and how certain elements are only found in stars. Kean states that scientists are confused due to young stars having only helium and hydrogen while older stars had dozens of elements. He then explains the famous 1957 paper called [[1]] that explains stars and their elements. He summarises this document and then explains earth's elements, the supernovae, our solar system, the formation of gas giants and the formation of rocky planets.

Chapter 5[edit]

"Elements in times of war"

In this chapter, Kean discusses elements and their involvement in chemical warfare in World Wars I and II. Kean gives a brief summary of the wars and their beginnings, linking them to the Trojan wars. He describes how the Spartans threw bundles of wood, pitch, and stinky sulfur into Athens to force the Athenians out but failed. Even though all of the scientifically advanced countries except the US signed the Hague Convention in 1899 to ban chemical weapons in war, the deal was broken. Countries secretly investigated the uses of bromine and chlorine.

Ultimately, Kean examines people such as [Haber], who developed ammonia in order to help the agricultural field to prevent people from starving to death, but instead ammonia was used to help Germany build nitrogen bombs. The author describes the effects that this had on Fritz's life and family. Towards the end of this chapter Kean explains the things countries did in order to obtain the elements for weaponry and killing.

Chapter 6[edit]

"Completing the table..with a bang"

In this chapter, Kean starts by discussing [Moseley.], who was famous for finding a mathematical relationship between the wavelengths of x-rays, the number of protons an element has, and the elements atomic number. He also built an electron gun that helped sort radioactive elements which by doing so also was able to disprove newly found elements. Moseley died on the field during World War I and his death caused scientists to search for the missing elements Moseley had discussed. The periodic table expanded as more elements were discovered. Following the timeline, Kean also discussed how the neutron was also discovered and how people became interested in radioactivity and began doing research. Upcoming radioactivity research led to the [Project] to develop along with the hopes of a building an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project combined with the [Carlo method] was successful and atomic bombs were able to be created. The Monte Carlos then strove for the development of computers and more nuclear weapons. This led to the creation of gamma radiation bombs. Kean closes the chapter by explaining how Manhattan Project veterans came up with bombs using cobalt capable of annihilating humanity and also explains the deal between the US and Soviet governments to lose any nuclear war.

Chapter 7[edit]

"Competitive elements: Extending the table, expanding the cold war"

This chapter mostly emphasized the discoveries of the last elements in the periodic table. Glenn Seaborg and Albert Ghiorso with join efforts worked at UC Berkeley and found at least one-sixth of the elements on the table, the most elements than anyone else in history. Discovering elements involved many experiments where one little mistake could ruin the whole experiment and waste thousands of dollars. Kean discussed the many arguments and fights raised for the naming rights of these final elements. The Russians found element 104 in 1964 before the Berkeley team did and later discovered element 105 but fights arose when both teams found element 106 just months apart and the big feuds for naming rights began. The disagreements ran into the 1990s but the fights and feuds were so extreme that [Union of pure and applied Chemistry)] had to give the final names. They studied the data of both teams and came up with a list of names. Both teams had lists of names they wanted. Seaborg was alive when an element was named after him and he was the first to be alive when such an occurrence happens.

Chapter 8[edit]

"Bad chemistry"

In this chapter, the author starts by talking about the importance of paying close attention to the details of the periodic table. Doing so could've avoided the two biggest mistakes in science history done by [Pauling] and [Segre].The author begins to discuss an element that has allegedly been found many times by many scientists but the true founder is Emilio Segre, that element being element 43. Then he talks about the basic mistakes Linus Pauling did when trying to discover the true form of the DNA strand. Instead, [Watson], [Crick], and [Franklin's] research lead to the discovery of the true shape and form of the DNA strand. 

Chapter 9[edit]

"Poisoner's corridor:"Ouch-Ouch""

In this chapter, elements such as thallium, lead, polonium, cadmium, and bismuth are discussed. Otherwise known as the poisonous elements. Cadmium's huge effects on Japan were discussed. Cadmium was constantly dumped into waters usually when mining for zinc. The constant dumping eventually leads to a poisoning of the rice plants due to the poisoned water. This, consequently, lead to the development of a disease called "itai-itai" or ouch-ouch, where people suffered tremendous pain, liver failure, and extremely damaged weakened bones. It took a very long time for people to discover the relation between this horrible disease and the poisonous water. Sam discussed thallium and ways it was used for killing people. The author then discusses that bismuth has a half-life of 20 billion years meaning that it will live on more than other elements. Kean goes on to talk about people who experimented with the poisonous elements mentioned such as David Hahn who tried to create Uranium-233 in his backyard with the lithium from batteries and thorium and was soon after arrested for attempting. Another individual Kean discussed in this chapter is, [Frederick Young] who experimented by putting this element in peoples foods and drinks. He was sent to a mental institution but when he got out he continued poisoning people. He only kills three out of the many people he poisoned

Chapter 10[edit]

"Take two elements, call me in the morning"

In this chapter Kean goes over many different uses for different elements. He discusses the positive effects that eating off silver platters had on officers in early times. The author then talks about [Brahe], who lost the bridge of his nose in a drunken sword duel in 1564. Kean states that he ordered a nose made out of silver and it helped aesthetically and it helped avoid infections. Kean then moves on to speak of the uses for copper. He states that copper is used for plumbing, ducts, and tubing in buildings. Next he discusses Gadolinium and how it has unpaired electrons making it one of the most magnetic elements and is used in modern day science by helping MRIs detect tumors.Gadolinium also can be used to attack cancer tumors because of its array of unpaired electrons. Kean states that this drug can one day help make surgical fixes without any actual surgical interventions. Towards the middle of the chapter, Kean discusses [Pasteur] and his findings about chirality. Pasteur developed pasteurization and created an anti-rabies vaccine.Towards the end of this chapter Kean talks about [Domagk] and his contributions to the finding of the first antibacterial drug and bacterial birth control.

Chapter 11[edit]

"How elements deceive"

In this chapter Kean discusses elements the ways that they can be very deceiving. He starts off the chapter by discuss a horrible accident of NASA technicians during a simulation.This event occurred March 19, 1981, five technicians were working on a simulation spacecraft at NASA's Cape Canaveral headquarters for a routine system check.They were given the all clear to go into a spacecraft area but as soon as they did 2 seconds later they all collapsed and when the rescue team came only three were saves. This element that killed them was nitrogen and it kills very fast and without any pain. Once inhaled (which is unnoticeable because it's odorless and colorless) nitrogen works very fast to go around the body and shuts down the brain.The author then moves on to talk about titanium and its many uses in implants to avoid infection and its deceiving methods to trick the bone to grow onto it. Kean then goes over beryllium. he states that When ingested it can seem very sweet but in reality its toxic.This element can also cause a disease called acute beryllium disease. An example of someone who had this disease because he worked a lot with this element is Enrico Fermi. When he died at the age of 53 of pneumonia , his lungs were completely shredded due to the berylium. Kean finishes this chapter by discussing Iodine and their health benefits on the body , India's blindness to the benefits of Iodine and he discusses Gandhi's salt march.

Chapter 12[edit]

"Political elements"

In this chapter Sam Kean starts a discussion about how elements and politics work together. Kean then speaks of the lives and findings of Marie Curie and Pierre Curie. In the 1890s, the Curie's began on their most well known work on radioactive elements. Their work and findings earned Marie and Pierre Curie a shared Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. Then they found two new radioactive elements, polonium and radium, after boiling down pitchblende. They were to win another shared Nobel Prize but Pierre died so only Marie received the prize. Kean then talks about their daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Irene found a method to convert tame elements into artificially radioactive elements by bombarding them with subatomic particles and due to this discover she earned a Nobel Prize in 1935. She developed leukemia later in life due to inhaling an exploded capsule from her lab. Lastly, Kean mentions the injustice done to Lise Meitner and her tremendous work with Otto Hahn. They both found element 91 known as brevium, but then it was changed to protactinium. Owing to the fact that Lise was a woman and the advent of World War II, she was not awarded one then or later. Otto Hahn received a Nobel Prize and did not mention her.

Chapter 13[edit]

"Elements as money"

In this chapter Sam discusses the elements being used as currency back in the day and he compares them to currency today being just paper money and coins made out of zinc,copper and nickel. Kean then talks about the story of King Midas and his "golden touch".He then continues to speak of the similarities and difference between brass and gold.Throughout this chapter the author discusses the craziness that came with the gold rush and everyone's search and desire to obtain gold. Kean explains the story behind the gold rush in Australia in 1896, and speaks of "fool's gold". Furthermore,kean speaks of another craze that rose with tellurium because once people realized that tellerium could be broken down to find gold within they stopped tossing tellerium aside. Kean then progresses to speak of the worlds serious problems with counterfeit money. In Europe , Europium and fluorescing dye are combined to be used on the euros that when put under a special laser, a charcoal sketch of Europe appears to show an authentic euro.Lastly in this chapter he discusses aluminum and how it used to be more valuable than gold back in the day before it began to be used for commercial use.

Chapter 14[edit]

"Artistic elements"

In this chapter Kean talks about how money and science work together. He describes that as the science got more and more costly the people that are able to make grand discoveries are the ones with the funds for it. Kean then goes on to discuss the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe a writer of science and politics. He was known for making brave claims and one major bold claim Goethe made was that of double replacement reactions. These claims that her made helped another scientists career life up, that scientists name was Johann Dobrereiner. Lastly for this chapter, Kean talks about Robert Lowell who was known for his madness and many outbreaks but once he got medication with Lithium he changed, his work changed and people's reaction towards him changed.

Chapter 15[edit]

"An element of madness"

In this chapter, Kean introduces pathological science by talking about [Crookes.] Crookes lost his brother Philip at sea. Crookes and his family became overwhelmed with grief. They turned to[[2]] to express their grief. Crookes and his family became a frequent attendee of the séances in order to try and communicate with his brother. He published "Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena Called Spiritual" in 1874 and people who he worked with thought he was crazy. Crookes eventually left the spiritualism research and involvement and went back to science and focused on other topics. Kean then goes into talking about cold fusion researched by [Pons] and [Fleischmann]. Cold fusion was supposed to be the new source of energy that was efficient and without any emissions. Pons and Fleischmann discovered this new power source and ran many of the same experiments to confirm their results but none of their tests didn't have the same results but regardless both men called for a press conference to release their new discovery. Cold fusion caught very big attention but it turned out to be a fraud.

Chapter 16[edit]

"Chemistry way, way below zero"

Kean starts the chapter off by talking about Robert Falcon Scott and his five companions to the South Pole. Many scientists were trying to be the first people in the world to reach the south pole but a team lead by Roald Amundsen had already gotten there before them. The Amundsen team was able to make it back home to safety but Falcon's team got stuck in the pole due to snow flurries and fuel supplies going to loss due to the high temperatures. Robert Falcon Scott and his companions passed away on the South Pole, but their efforts didn't go unnoticed. Throughout the chapter, Kean discussed elements that were put through extreme temperatures to be able to get a sample. Xenon and krypton were put to temperatures as low as -240 F.Sam also talks about how laser beams come to be with elements like yttrium and neodymium. Kean states that the most powerful laser has more power than the US and it uses crystals of yttrium spiked with neodymium. While lasers produce light in visible light, masers don't as they produce it in microwaves. Masers were considered impossible until [Townes] began working on them and his research earned him a Nobel Prize in 1964.

Chapter 17[edit]

"The science of bubbles"

In this chapter, Kean talks about bubbles and how [Glaser] studied them. Kean states that it all began when Glaser started thinking about particle physics while drinking beer and staring at the bubbles of the beer. Glaser wanted to research more on how bubbles worked and so he started building a bubble chamber. When beer didn't work to make good bubbles he tried with liquid nitrogen. This research he conducted with the bubble chamber earned him a Noble Prize at the young age of thirty-three. Kean also talks about [Rutherford] and the radioactivity research that lead him to find a new element and beta particles. For this research and discover he received a Nobel Prize in 1908.

Chapter 18[edit]

"Tools of ridiculous precision"

Kean starts the chapter by talking about the people who are perfectionists at being precise at the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and the BIPM (Bureau International des Poids et Measures). These people are responsible for knowing for long a second is among many other things. Kean throughout this chapter discusses the prototype of the kilogram and a metal rod in Paris that apparently measures exactly 1.0000 meters. He also discusses the world's way of telling time nowadays compared to the old way of looking at the stars and planets. He ends the chapter by discussing the measurement of alpha and how it was 1/136 but then it was changed 1/137.0359. Kean discusses these topics to emphasize the measures people would go through to be precise.

Chapter 19[edit]

"Above (and beyond) the periodic table"

Last but not least Sam Kean talks about francium, "Magic elements" and the future of the periodic table. The most anyone has every acquired of Francium is ten thousand atoms and it only lasted for twenty minutes. Since Francium is very rare than its even more difficult to find astatine and even if it was it would be lethal due to is high levels of radiation. The"magic elements" found by Maria Goeppert-Mayer include extra stable elements 2, 8, 20 and more. Kean talks about the [" island of stability"] and the future of the periodic table. Kean states since alpha is 1/137 and Einstein's theory of relativity says that nothing can travel faster than light there are theories that element 137 will be the final element because theoretically, any elements beyond 137 will be physically impossible to obtain or be created but science can change.


Critical reception to The Disappearing Spoon has been mostly positive.[1][2] Science News and Smithsonian both praised the work for its wide appeal and writing,[3] and Science News commented that Kean's choice to deal with topics by periods in history helped "reveal how truly elemental the elements are and explain why this chemistry book appeals to nonchemists."[4] The New York Times was slightly more critical in their review, as they felt that the text was entertaining but leapt around too frequently in its topics.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Saunders, Fenella. "The Disappearing Spoon and The Elements". American Scientist. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  2. ^ Radford, Tim. "The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  3. ^ Zielinski, Sarah. "The Disappearing Spoon: True Tales from the Periodic Table". Smithsonian. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  4. ^ Ehrenberg, Rachel. "Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean". Science News. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  5. ^ Maslin, Janet. "Hard Science, Softened With Stories". New York Times. Retrieved 7 June 2015.

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