Book Review – “The Disappearing Spoon”

If you have any chemistry or science teachers on your Christmas list, your shopping is done.


Title: The Disappearing Spoon (and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements)
Author: Sam Kean
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: July, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-316-05164-4
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This is a historical tour of the periodic table. Kean has researched humanizing stories for every element on the table, and has compiled them together into a surprisingly fluid collection.

High Point

The title prank (involving gallium) is a good one. I also enjoyed the tales of the radioactive boy scout and most of the stories involving Enrico Fermi and Marie Curie.

Low Point

The primary low point on this reading probably doesn’t apply anymore. I was sent an advance review copy, meaning that it’s not through the final editing stages, so there are typos, an empty index, no page numbers on the table of contents, etc. While the volume of typos was irritating at some points, it is highly unlikely they will persist in the copies on public sale. I have no strong criticisms of any aspect that I expect to see in those editions.

The Scores

This is an original and welcome concept. As a teacher, I like to look into the history of math and science to better humanize them and help the students connect to course content. This is a fantastic resource to that effect, and also an entertaining tome in its own right. I give it 5 out of 6.

The completeness is impressive. I counted 114 elements represented in a 117 element table, and I might have missed some. Odds are excellent that any element that actually comes up in a classroom is here. If you are reading it for entertaining (as you certainly could) you’ll be duly impressed. I give it 5 out of 6.

The coherence improves as the book progresses. Some of the early stories didn’t transition terribly smoothly, but by the time the book is finished, the stories are written and ordered in such a way that connections are made and transitions are smooth, despite a wide and varied set of topics. (After all, elements are all the stories have in common, so there’s a huge variety to them.) I give it 4 out of 6.

The clarity is excellent. Kean takes some advanced scientific concepts and strips them down to just the pieces one needs to know to understand the coming anecdote, and then explains that science to the layperson level so the anecdote can be properly appreciated. He does so concisely as well, so the lesson aspect of the content doesn’t cause those looking for the historical aspect to lose interest. I give it 6 out of 6.

The editing will not be judged in this edition. Editing is often treated in two stages. The first stage, revision, is making sure the ideas and content are all arranged the way they need to be, with relevant details, effective ordering, and so forth. That stage was well done. The second stage is the one that checks for spelling, punctuation, and so forth. That stage is known to be incomplete as of the publication of this edition. As such, this review will only be out of 42, and I will not consider it in the total.

The emotional response is strong. With such a huge variety of content, there’s also a huge variety of responses. Some stories are entertaining, some are hilarious, some are saddening, and so forth. There will definitely be something for everyone. I give it 6 out of 6.

Overall, it’s a book I can easily recommend to those with an interest in science and its history. I give it 5 out of 6.

In total, The Disappearing Spoon (and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements) receives 31 out of 36.