New book explores the fascinating history behind the elements in the periodic table

July 12, 2010

The periodic table is one of science's crowning achievements. And though many of us may recall it as the staid chart we were forever forced to witness during dull lectures in high school chemistry classrooms, it's much more a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements [Little, Brown and Company; July 12, 2010; $29.99; Hardcover] follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and all of the elements as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. Filled with surprising and fascinating stories, from the old trick of molding a spoon out of gallium (element 31), which will melt and seemingly disappear in your unwitting friend's cup of coffee, to modern archeologists who were able to track Lewis and Clark's campsites by detecting the mercury they left behind from their laxatives, THE DISAPPEARING SPOON fuses the periodic table's science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the big bang through the end of time.
About the Author:

Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and now he is a writer in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, Air & Space/ Smithsonian, and New Scientist. In 2009 he was a runner-up for the National Association of Science Writers' Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for best science writer under the age of thirty. He currently writes for Science and is a 2009 Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellow.


"Like the scientists who observe them, some of the 118 elements on the table have become household names while others are relegated to obscurity. But the stories of our early experimentations with even these most overlooked characters - beryllium, rubidium, neodymium - are at turns humorous and tragic, ironic and inspiring. Sam Kean manages to provide a quirky and refreshingly human look at a structure we usually think of as purely pragmatic."

"Fascinating....a lively history of the elements and the characters behind their discovery." -New Scientist

"With The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean...has done something remarkable: He's made some highly technical science accessible, placed well-known and lesser-known discoveries in the context of history and made reading about the lives of the men and women inside the lab coats enjoyable." -Austin American-Statesman

"Kean loves a good story, and his account teems with ripping yarns, colorful characters, and the occasional tall tale of chemical invention....let us hope that Kean...continues to bring the excitement of science out of the lab and into the homes of the American reading public." -Chemical & Engineering News

"That mystifying chart on the wall in high school chem class, decoded."

"This is nonfiction to make you sound smart over gin and tonics: the human history behind the periodic table."

"Kean is in his element as he presents a parade of entertaining anecdotes about scientists....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." -Publishers Weekly

"Kean writes in a whimsical yet easy-to-read style....Highly recommended for public libraries and for amateur, high school, and undergraduate scientist wishing to be informed as well as entertained." -Library Journal

"Science magazine reporter Kean uses the periodic table as a springboard for an idiosyncratic romp through the history of science....The author is a great raconteur with plenty of stories to tell....entertaining and enlightening." -Kirkus Reviews

"It's crammed full of compelling anecdotes about each of the elements, plenty of nerd-gossip involving Nobel prizes, and enough political intrigue to capture the interest of the anti-elemental among us...Once you're done with the book, do your chemistry teacher and all her future students a favor, and send her a copy."--Galleycat

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Sam Kean
Little, Brown and Company
July 12, 2010
$24.99; Hardcover
400 pp; 10 b/w illustrations

For more information, to request a review copy of THE DISAPPEARING SPOON, or to schedule an interview with Sam Kean, please contact Carolyn O'Keefe at 212-364-1464 or

Little, Brown and Company

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