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


Booklist Reviews 2010 July #1
Like big-game hunters, scientists who stalked an undiscovered element courted peril: Marie Curie and Enrico Fermi both died from exposure to dangerous elements in the course of their experiments. But besides them and Dmitri Mendeleev, the deviser of the periodic table, which looms over science classrooms everywhere, few discoverers of the elements occupy the consciousness of even avid science readers. Kean rectifies that in this amble from element 1, hydrogen, to element 112, copernicium. Attaching stories to a human-interest angle, Kean ensures that with his elaboration of the fixation a chemist, physicist, industrialist, or artist had for a particular element comes clarity about why the element behaves as it does. The soft sell about proton numbers and electron shells thus closes the deal for Kean's anecdotes about elements of war, elements of health, and elements of wealth, plus the title's practical joke of a spoon (made from gallium). Whether explaining why Silicon Valley is not Germanium Valley or reveling in naming-rights battles over a new element, Kean holds interest throughout his entertaining debut. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

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Choice Reviews 2010 December
Many scientists recall that a primary motivator for becoming a scientist was fascination with liquid mercury. Kean was also fascinated with mercury, but although he studied physics, became a science journalist. Here, Kean describes most of the chemical elements, but he does not group them by row and column as in the periodic table. Instead, the author uses interesting groupings, often offbeat or whimsical. The discussions of the history, personalities, and uses of the elements make the grouping rationale more obvious by the end of each chapter. In aiming for his popular audience, the author's somewhat flip journalistic style leads to many errors and misconceptions. Most egregious is ascribing properties of an element, like bromine, to compounds of elements. Kean describes bromine as a war gas used in WW I, but the actual agents used were bromine-substituted organic tear gas compounds. Nevertheless, the author is a good storyteller, although the reader should be aware that some of the book's factual and historical information is refuted in other sources. Strangely enough, "chemistry" is seldom mentioned. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers. Copyright 2010 American Library Association.

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Kirkus Reviews 2010 April #2
In his debut, Science magazine reporter Kean uses the periodic table as a springboard for an idiosyncratic romp through the history of science.Ranking Dmitri Mendeleev's creation of the first version of the periodic table ("one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind") alongside achievements by Darwin and Einstein, the author extends the metaphor of a geographical map to explain how the location of each element reveals its role--hydrogen and chlorine in the formation of an acid, carbon as the building block of proteins, etc.--and how gaps in the table allowed for future discoveries of new elements. Kean presents the history of science beginning with Plato, who used the Greek word for element for the first time in the belief that elements are fundamental and unchanging. The author then looks at Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for her discovery that the radioactivity of uranium was nuclear rather than chemical. Kean suggests that nuclear science not only led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, but was instrumental in the development of computers. The women employed by the Manhattan Project, he writes, in "hand-crunching long tables of data…became known by the neologism ‘computers.' " The author is a great raconteur with plenty of stories to tell, including that of Fritz Haber, the chemist who developed nitrogen fertilizer and saved millions from starvation, and applied his talents in World War I to creating poison gas, despite the protests of his wife, who committed suicide. "Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom," writes the author, "you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science." Nearly 150 years of wide-ranging science, in fact, and Kean makes it all interesting.Entertaining and enlightening. Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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Library Journal BookSmack
Kean shares the same obsessive fascination with his topic as Bryson, and his joy in his subject shows on every page of this tour of the periodic table. The book is sure to entice Bryson fans into more consuming science reading. Like Bryson and his gang of brilliant writers, Kean relates the science and history of the elements through addictive storytelling, from how lithium affected poet Robert Lowell to how Marie Curie entertained guests (she glowed). Smart, funny, and deeply involving, this book makes it hard not to become interested in the wonders of the elements. Keep Theodore Gray's The Elements at hand to add visual aids to Kean's clever stories. Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads", Booksmack!, 12/2/10 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Library Journal Reviews 2010 May #1

Kean, an award-winning freelance news and science writer, intertwines fascinating stories with biographical sketches about the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the 118 elements found in the current periodic table. From hydrogen to ununoctium, the filling out of Mendeleev's original 19th-century periodic table is a curious story of history, politics, etymology, alchemy, and mythology. Kean primarily concentrates on discoveries since the dawn of the nuclear age and postulates on elements yet to be discovered. VERDICT Aiming at a general audience with a cursory knowledge of science and chemistry, Kean writes in a whimsical yet easy-to-read style. Although he includes copious notes, his book complements rather than replaces Eric Scerri's excellent The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance. Highly recommended for public libraries and for amateur, high school, and undergraduate scientists wishing to be informed as well as entertained.--Ian D. Gordon, Brock Univ. Lib., St. Catharines, Ont.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 May #2

Science magazine reporter Kean views the periodic table as one of the great achievements of humankind, "an anthropological marvel," full of stories about our connection with the physical world. Funny, even chilling tales are associated with each element, and Kean relates many. The title refers to gallium (Ga, 31), which melts at 84°F, prompting a practical joke among "chemical cognoscenti": shape gallium into spoons, "serve them with tea, and watch as your guests recoil when their Earl Grey ‘eats' their utensils." Along with Dmitri Mendeleyev, the father of the periodic table, Kean is in his element as he presents a parade of entertaining anecdotes about scientists (mad and otherwise) while covering such topics as thallium (Tl, 81) poisoning, the invention of the silicon (Si, 14) transistor, and how the ruthenium (Ru, 44) fountain pen point made million for the Parker company. With a constant flow of fun facts bubbling to the surface, Kean writes with wit, flair, and authority in a debut that will delight even general readers. 10 b&w illus. (July 12)

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