Customer Reviews for

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

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

45 out of 47 people found this review helpful.

Biography of a Fascinating Subject: Scandal included!

I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry. Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!). It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that relate...
I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry. Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!). It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that related at all to real life. If I had a teacher like Sam Kean, however, that could have been different.

Fast forward too many years, and now I'm engrossed in this nonfiction 'memoir' of the Periodic Table of Elements. Like any good biography, this has scandal, lies, fraud, madness, explosions (!!!) and lots of name-dropping. Kean explains just what the periodic table is, but in a format that reads more like a novel, with anecdotal details to liven it up. Mercury pills were used by Lewis and Clark for their health? Yep, and you can trace their path (um, at least their bathroom trips on their journey) by where scientists have found unusually high amounts of mercury in the soil. The poet Robert Lowell? Did lithium ruin his work by making him sane? Who knew the lies and fraud and mind games played by scientists intent on getting a Nobel Prize!

There's no getting around it, this is a book that makes you think. It's not simple and it assumes you have a basic knowledge of science. Some areas were over my head, but not for long. Kean is a wonderful teacher with a sassy wise guy voice that livens up any of the deeper areas.

posted by SAHARATEA on March 6, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

8 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

Not enough madness & love or history of the world

Surprise! It's a book about chemistry & physics. The history was more the history of chemistry and physics, than the entire world. I did enjoy the tiny bits about WWII, and I would have loved to read more about Scientists Behaving Badly. Alas, like the disappearing spoo...
Surprise! It's a book about chemistry & physics. The history was more the history of chemistry and physics, than the entire world. I did enjoy the tiny bits about WWII, and I would have loved to read more about Scientists Behaving Badly. Alas, like the disappearing spoon, a tale would surface and then disappear quickly into more talk of electons. This might be a fun book if I was still in high school or college. It was readable, so I got through it, but it was very slow-going. It was an awesome cure for insomnia, after four or five pages a night, I would fall asleep without fail. I will keep it near my nightstand and re-read it again.

posted by TexasStarVA on April 20, 2011

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  • Posted March 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Biography of a Fascinating Subject: Scandal included!

    I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry. Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!). It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that related at all to real life. If I had a teacher like Sam Kean, however, that could have been different.

    Fast forward too many years, and now I'm engrossed in this nonfiction 'memoir' of the Periodic Table of Elements. Like any good biography, this has scandal, lies, fraud, madness, explosions (!!!) and lots of name-dropping. Kean explains just what the periodic table is, but in a format that reads more like a novel, with anecdotal details to liven it up. Mercury pills were used by Lewis and Clark for their health? Yep, and you can trace their path (um, at least their bathroom trips on their journey) by where scientists have found unusually high amounts of mercury in the soil. The poet Robert Lowell? Did lithium ruin his work by making him sane? Who knew the lies and fraud and mind games played by scientists intent on getting a Nobel Prize!

    There's no getting around it, this is a book that makes you think. It's not simple and it assumes you have a basic knowledge of science. Some areas were over my head, but not for long. Kean is a wonderful teacher with a sassy wise guy voice that livens up any of the deeper areas.

    45 out of 47 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great for those interested in a little bit of everything!

    I love books but only have so much time, so I'm pretty careful about what I choose to read. I heard great things about this book through word of mouth, and it didn't disappoint! Kean does a masterful job of explaining the interesting facts and stories behind the elements that make up our universe in a way that's easy to understand and fun to read. Especially for people like me, who love to learn...but maybe spent more time in high school science class shooting spitwads than actually reading our boring text books! With "The Disappearing Spoon," Kean truly makes science and history come alive--I highly recommend!

    20 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 17, 2010

    What an awesome idea!

    This book is fantastic. I only wish I were still teaching science! Kean has taken a terribly BORING subject and put real,m readable life into it. You will never look at the periodic table the same way again. I did skim read parts because of scientific "frills" but the layout makes this a great source of interesting tidbits. I am really glad I took the time to pick this book up for a preview. Teachers of science...this is a keeper!

    16 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Why don't some scientists win the Noble Prize for their amazing discoveries? Do you know that a woman chemist worked on the Atom Bomb but got no credit simply because she was a woman?

    The periodic table is one of science's crowning achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in the Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

    Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? Why did a dash of lithium (Li,3) cure poet Robert Lowell of his madness? How does mercury (Hg, 80) help us detect the campsites of Lewis and Clark? And why did tellurim (Te, 52) lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

    The Disappearing Spoon has the answers, fusing the table's science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery and alchemy, from the Big Bang through the end of time.

    My Review:

    I found this book to be surprisingly interesting. Having studied the Periodic Table in my own school years and then again with my own kids, I had never made the interesting discoveries that this book shows. It is a delightful way to engage ourselves in learning why the mercury inside of a thermometer always stays in a ball and never disburses like a liquid would. Is it a liquid?

    This seeming harmful and toxic element was also recommend to cure a variety of ailments and was given in a pill form. Discover thorough reading this book just what was it given for and what it really did for those unlucky enough to take it. You will even discover the longest chemical name for a simply thing like titin, a molecule, whose original name is 189, 819 letters long.

    I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to gain some insight into understanding the periodic table and it's elements a whole lot better. It really does make learning more about them fun. I could see providing this book to anyone who is taking any science class in Junior, High School or College classes.

    I received this book, 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 compliments of Hachette Book Groups.

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Not enough madness & love or history of the world

    Surprise! It's a book about chemistry & physics. The history was more the history of chemistry and physics, than the entire world. I did enjoy the tiny bits about WWII, and I would have loved to read more about Scientists Behaving Badly. Alas, like the disappearing spoon, a tale would surface and then disappear quickly into more talk of electons. This might be a fun book if I was still in high school or college. It was readable, so I got through it, but it was very slow-going. It was an awesome cure for insomnia, after four or five pages a night, I would fall asleep without fail. I will keep it near my nightstand and re-read it again.

    8 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 20, 2012

    My Absolute Favorite!

    Wonderful merge of science, politics and humanity. Well written and extremely informative. Gives a wonderful perspective of how all things are related.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Science, whatever level it’s at, is a beautiful thing full

    Science, whatever level it’s at, is a beautiful thing full of the mists that swirl about history. It provides for intrigue, development and the egos of man to suffer both downfalls and advancement. No better way is this shown then in the stories of the periodic table that Sam Kean provides in The Disappearing Spoon.

    The book is centered on the periodic table but it by no means stays there but strays far and wide through the developments in science, chronicling as it does so how one area, one discovery had vast and wide ranging impacts. Everything from genetics to general relativity to pharmacology and nuclear physics is encased in the periodic table and subsequently this book.

    I can’t say enough how enjoyed it but can only express that sentiment by wishing that there was in fact more to the book. Give me a thousand pages and I would have been entertained and enthralled by Sam Kean. He is a man fully capable of detailing the intricacies of science without getting bogged down in extraneous detail or the verbosity the so often accompanies specialized fields. Time and time again he imparts the importance of a development in science and the periodic table while highlighting the personalities that made it possible.

    And if the periodic table is anything, it’s a record of the major people to have affected the world of science and see to its branching into its numerous disciplines. Not that long ago science was but one field – and while mathematics is inevitably at the root of everything, the periodic table and the stories that Sam Kean tells demonstrate so well how the scaling up of one aspect of science doesn’t necessarily correspond to how the next will operate. Take for example the move from elements to molecules and on to proteins and genetics – nothing is ever straight forward.

    If it were then the periodic table would be nicely squared or at least a regular rectangle, but it’s not. Instead it resembles something of a castle with a moat made of lanthanides and actinides (those two rows of elements floating free from the rest of the table). Ever wonder why they sit outside the rest of the table – read this book to find out. Want to know the largest possible element, according to today’s understanding of atomic physics – read this book. Want to know what elements make the ideal poison – again this book.

    Seriously, you could pick something, anything, be it history, people, a time, a place, even a philosophy and it will inevitably have had some part in the formation of the periodic table. Because the table itself is organized in the simplest fashion possible to express the most information so too is The Disappearing Spoon. It does not just start with Hydrogen and work its way through the table but tackles multiple elements together, discussing their interrelatedness both in the science world and history. It’s a very successful means to an end because like periodic science, the history is not a simple thing and the elements were never discovered one after another.

    If you have an interest in history or an interest in science, no matter what level your understanding than this book is for you. In fact I’d heartily recommend it for anyone that struggles to enjoy either area as Sam Kean is an excellent storyteller and brings to his topic an excitement unlike any other.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 22, 2011

    Personal Life of the Periodic Table.

    To start; there is well researched science and explanation of the elements and the organization of the discovery of the elements that are our universe.

    Where one might expect the science to be difficult to follow or focused towards physicists and chemists, it remains accessible in a clever way that isn't diluted. Most concepts become very easy to understand with Keane's relaxed prose (I still can't quite wrap my head around the various "shells" inhabited by electrons) that makes you forget you are reading a scientific text. Reading this book is more like following a biography, following not only atoms and nomenclatures, but also discussing and highlighting the minds and personalities that have brought us to where we are today.

    There is a fascinating amount of human interest scaffolding the creation and illumination of the periodic table and its elements. Layers of politics, love, and rivalry help to build a great scientific text that can give any soap opera a run for its money. Keane uses colorful language and well-paced narrative to give each of the elements personality and celebrity worthy of paparazzi.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2010

    Amazing book

    As a chemist, I didn't realize the fascinating back story of a number of elements. It made for an enjoyable read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Amazing Book!

    One of the best books I have ever read. Actually made physics semi-understandable for someone with a mental "math block"! Highly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in science

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2012

    Awesome book. -UNIQUE-

    Great book!! If you have a general interest in the periodic table what-so-ever, this book is for you!! Very informative. Good stories.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2011

    Recommend

    Loved it. Great history. Great learning experience.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2011

    Periodic Table for Dummies

    It has been a while since I was in chemistry, so had to dig deep (and look at my son's high school chemistry book) to remember some of the principles that the author brings up, but it was a great re-introduction to a topic I didn't always appreciate in school. But boy did I wash that this book was around when I was taking chemistry. The mind apparently remembers better when it can relate a concept to something, and this book relates the period table with history, people, places, etc. It is a great book to spark the interest of young students.

    The author obviously knows his topic and the result is a very well researched topic. The evolution of the period table was very fascinating and all the elements and where they are placed had meaning....even in every day life for most people. I've recommended this book to many friends, including current chemistry students. The initial reaction is "really? chemistry?", but are amazed at the historical biography and some of the facts brought up in the book. I would highly recommend it if you like chemistry, history, and a bit of fun.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2011

    awesome book

    full of interesting scientific facts and knowledge. great. book

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 13, 2014

    Good, but too much like a textbook. What drew me to this book wa

    Good, but too much like a textbook. What drew me to this book was the opportunity to learn quirky facts about the elements, such as the fact that boron is used in both vitamins and gasoline. And this I enjoyed thoroughly! But I did get bogged down into the forays into chemistry that read like a textbook. Even though I was an honors grad who made all A's in university science classes, I had to read some of the pages twice, and found myself struggling to get my brain around the explanations of the nuclear shell model etc. In addition, the writer seemed to assume a knowledge of terms that the average reader wouldn't have, such as chiral. He starts talking about the importance of chiarlty, without explaining the term, which, it turns out, relates to asymmetry. An in-book glossary would have been helpful. I didn't think I would ever make my way to the end of the first chapter! But I'm glad I did. The book wasn't what I had expected, and I believe the promos for it should be more upfront about the true nature of the book. But I'm glad that I didn't give up. I did learn, and it stretched my brain! But afterward, my next book was lighter than I normally would choose; my brain needed a vacation! 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 17, 2011

    Disappointing

    It's been a while since I read this book. I remember being very eager to read it, but not enjoying it nearly as much as I anticipated. There just didn't seem to be enough meat, and it didn't feel like it was very well written. The stories were interesting, but not really new, and there simply wasn't enough information. I wish I could say more, but I have discussed this book with others recently, and they were similarly disappointed.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2011

    good, then too much

    first four parts were very interesting to a non-chemist. part v could have been renamed for the discovery of a new element...tedium.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 3, 2015

    A description of the evolution of the periodic table, including

    A description of the evolution of the periodic table, including how atoms and matter come into being. While the scientific explanations lack clarity at times, the book overall does a good job of explaining the organization of the periodic table and the races to discover/describe new elements. Later chapters focus on specific groups of elements, by location on the table or by shared traits, to provide further insight into the chemistry and physics underlying the periodic table as we know it today. Much of the information is described in vignettes about the scientists themselves, as well as their rivalries, which adds an element of entertainment.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2014

    Great!

    This book is filled with lots of fun facts and stories that will help a lot with school, and I believe it would be a great leisure read as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2012

    Text book material

    Well written but very technical...not a good read for me

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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