The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean (2010)

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (2010)
Sam Kean

Here Sam Kean takes us on both an academic, colorful history, and a personal tale of experiences relating the periodic table. I’d recommend this as a good introduction for all high school students to at least start reading. If they’re still bored with science after a chapter or two, let it go. But many, I think, will keep reading and find how interesting the periodic table – and the study of chemical elements in its entirety – really is, without feeling bogged down by the facts and information necessary to succeed in chemistry class.

This was my first of two of Kean’s books thus far – I wanted to read another “hit” by him before I read the Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, and it worked out well.

Kean goes through Wars, Peace, conflicts, relationships, and more. He starts, after an introductory anecdote and teaser, with a thorough description of Mendeleev and where the table comes from. There were many other styles and drawings of the periodic table, and it’s a shame (he notes, and I agree) that we aren’t shown some of those tables today. That should be the first item students are taught about the table: how it arranges atoms based on their properties.

He includes a particularly good description of pathological science, which is the best description I’ve heard of how I felt about science when I was a little crazy – a scientific attitude, sure, and a willingness to be wrong (missing from pathological science), but a deep, emotional belief in your theories (what I felt).

Kean gives excellent descriptions of:

  • scientific progress (noted first),
  • reasons why silicon life isn’t likely,
  • Congo,
  • the monte carlo method,
  • Linus Pauling,
  • how Nitrogen can kill,
  • taste buds,
  • quantum mechanics,
  • the age of the earth (a great use of prose here!!),
  • bubbles,
  • standards of measurement,
  • the fine structure constant (alpha),
  • and a short overview of strange physical states.


  • I don’t understand counterfeiting and opportunity cost: why can’t you make money?
  • I should investigate bubbles and fluid dynamics / formation / etc…

The format for my notes are more organized but less paraphrased, so I need to look through the list of highlights: