The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam KeanThe Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Published by Little, Brown on 7/12/2010
Source: Purchased
Pages: 400
Buy from IndieBound


To most of us, the Periodic Table looks like little more than a series of boxes that reminds us of the hours we spent memorizing names and symbols for a test we had in high school chemistry class. But behind each symbol is a story, many filled with years of research, trials and painstaking work. In The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean looks into the people, myths, passions and tales hidden within the elements that make up our world. 

Kean borrows from Mendeleev, the Father of the Period Table, and structures his book based on the table itself. Using it as a map, each chapter is centered on a group of common elements – “The Poisoner’s Corridor”, “The Galapagos of the Periodic Table” – and peeks at some aspect of their backstory. Where one chapter examines the competition between scientists to find a specific element, another exposes the history of those used as medicine, giving the book a great sense of variety. 

“…Mendeleev threw together his first table to meet a textbook pblisher’s deadline. He’d already written volume one of the textbook, a five-hundred-page tome, but had got through just eight elements. That meant he had to fit all the rest into volume two. After six weeks of procrastinating, he decided in one inspired moment that the most concise way to present the information was in a table.”

As someone who took her last chemistry class in eleventh grade, I was hoping that most of The Disappearing Spoon would stay accessible, and it did. However, there were some points when protons, neutrons and electrons started swirling and I was left shouting, “Hey wait! Tell me more about how Lewis and Clark’s mercury tablet poo helped historians find their path!”

Still, The Disappearing Spoon is a rare peek into an unseen world. Particularly for those interested in science and its history, Kean’s book is a must read.