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

Sam Kean
Sep 2, 2013

Equal parts science and history, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon takes the reader on a journey through the periodic table of elements and the people who discovered them.  This quick and candid read is full of fun facts and asides—did you know that nineteenth century mercury laxatives have allowed historians to accurately trace Lewis and Clark’s path west? And that the myth of Midas might have sprung from the zinc deposits that made his kingdom flush with lustrous brass?  But it’s also full of tales from the darker side of chemistry, such as Fritz Haber’s drive to invent chemical warfare and nitrogen’s gift of silent suffocation. Kean has an engaging and easy style, but occasionally it can border on passing or shallow, which considering the breadth of the subject matter is understandable, but keeps this book as a compliment or an introduction to basic chemistry, not a definitive work.  That being said, it still contains enough science that I learned something new about electron bonds and radioactivity and the other quirks and kinks that make the periodic table the fascinating entity it is.  The Disappearing Spoon will particularly please fans of Bill Bryson, Mary Roach and Michio Kaku, and other popular non-fiction authors.

Reviewed by Library Staff