Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

TheDisappearingSpoonCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium (Cd, 48)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why did tellurium (Te, 52) lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

The periodic table is one of our crowning scientific achievements, but it’s also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal and obsession. The fascinating tales in The Disappearing Spoon follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold and every single element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

Why did a little lithium (Li, 3) help cure poet Robert Lowell of his madness? And how did gallium (Ga, 31) become the go-to element for laboratory pranksters? The Disappearing Spoon has the answers, fusing science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery and alchemy, from the big bang through to the end of time.

Genre: Nonfiction, Science
My Copy Came From: I got a used paperback copy from PaperbackSwap.

*** this post contains affiliate links ***

Review: An exciting, educational read! The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean was an absolutely fascinating, can’t put down, educational read about the periodic table of the elements. Did I really just type that? I’m not a huge science fan, but this book really worked for me in that it blended science with history, food, war, and politics among other things.

Kean’s writing is approachable and easy to follow, even if he’s talking about science-y stuff that sometimes went waaay over my head. He made physics and the elements fun, and I enjoyed learning from this book! I’ve never really thought too much about the periodic table. It’s just something that’s there, that I learned about in school, and haven’t really thought of it since. Kean takes the periodic table and tells the story behind the elements: how they were discovered, the personalities and quirks of the scientists who discovered them, how the elements are used and how they affect us today, from currency to medicine to food. The Disappearing Spoon makes the elements memorable and gives them a personality!

We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.

Broken up into thematic chapters, there are chapters about atoms, poisons, medicine, money, politics, and war. I found the chapters about war and poisons most interesting, in a horrific can’t look/can’t not look way. Towards the end of the book, it got extremely complicated for me to follow as it ventured into the future of the periodic table and about foams and bubbles. I didn’t find this as interesting as the history behind everything.

I enjoyed learning about how there was a WWI “battle” in Colorado (over the discovery of molybdenum, which was desired by the Germans to help fortify their steel), and learning about the personal history of so many of the scientists, with Fritz Haber’s story being quite disturbing. He invented a process that is involved in the creation of fertilizers, which helps to supply food to the world, but he also is considered the “father of chemical warfare”. There were interesting stories about the women who have helped shape the periodic table, and how important copper is, and also the impact that UC Berkeley has had on the table.

There are a lot of footnotes in The Disappearing Spoon, so I’m not sure how this would work reading it on a Kindle, or e-reader, as you definitely don’t want to miss the footnotes!

All in all this was a highly enjoyable, exciting read that has made me look at the world around me a bit differently.

Bottom Line: Exciting and educational!


LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase*** 

Author Website

Does this sound like a good read? What is your favorite element? Do you enjoy science?


17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

    1. 🙂 I really enjoyed it and learned SO much! This was a title that I kept bringing up to my husband (who isn’t a reader but likes science), and kept telling him about what I was reading.


      1. One book that I yakked about for ages that didn’t seem to catch on with anyone was called Limber by Angela Pelster. It was this lovely factual book about trees that were set in narratives that I found delightful. Those science/narrative-type books tend to get me!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. What an interesting sounding read! I’m intrigued by it. I don’t go for essays so much, but the topic sounds very interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by trees, probably because it’s in my blood 🙂 My great-grandfather was a high-climber who worked all throughout Canada & the Pacific Northwest. I read a book called The Eagle Tree that has really stuck with me. It’s about an autistic boy who is attached to a special tree that is slated to be removed. It’s a fictional story, but there’s info about climate change and I found the story fascinating!


            1. He’d climb the trees, making sure to be tied off twice – just in case he accidentally cut one of his ties he’d still have an extra, and then top the trees / cut off branches. We’ve got pictures of him in the 1920s standing on top of a giant tree (just digital copies now, the originals were destroyed) – and some other photos too. The logging industry is fascinating to me – well, the old way it was done, not so much now.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Neat! Thank you for sharing! I grew up in Michigan, where planting trees was a great “New Deal” job. It’s funny because when you’re in a car, if you look out the window you get motion sick because all the trees are in straight lines (the same kind of effect you get if you look at a corn field while driving by).

                Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds so fascinating! I love anything that makes science readable and accessible, especially if it’s about history and how our understanding developed. You make it sound so exciting, I’m sold. Thanks for the great introduction to this one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 🙂 It was really a fascinating, informative read! This was a title that I couldn’t wait to pick up again when I set it down, and I kept talking about it to people around me while I was reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

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