The Disappearing Spoon

 Wp-Content Uploads 2010 07 The-Disappearing-Spoon The title for Sam Kean's new book, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, comes from a prank that scientists sometimes play: they make a spoon out of gallium (which melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit) and hand it to unsuspecting friends to stir their tea with.

The title sets the tone for this witty, anecdote-filled book about the role elements have played in science, art, war, commerce, medicine, literature, and other fields. An element I'd never heard of before, ruthenium, was the key to riches for Kenneth Parker, who used it to make fountain pen tips in 1944. A more well-known element, silver, plays a role in the fate of Stan Jones (I posted about him in 2002), Montana's Libertarian candidate for Senator in 2002. Jones drank a homebrew concoction of colloidal silver to prevent bacterial infection (he was afraid that conventional antibiotics wouldn't be available in the new millennium) and it stained his skin blue for good (the condition is called argyria and I wrote abut it in my book, The World's Worst, which you can buy for $0.01 on Amazon). Cadmium is both a hero and a villain: a hero for being a part of vibrant pigments (I love my cadmium red and cadmium yellow acrylic paints), and a villain for sickening a great many people in the 1940s who drank out of drinking glasses lined with cadmium.

The disappearing spoon is my favorite kind of science journalism: it reveals a hidden universe in the form of a thrilling tale.

Buy The Disappearing Spoon on Amazon


  1. Not just back in the 40s! This June because of cadmium levels, McDonald’s recalled movie themed (Shrek Forever After 3D) Drinking Glasses. A search on “cadmium” on the US Consumer Product Safety Commission website brings up dozens of warnings and recalls. Scary stuff.

  2. I am just finishing up this book from our library. It’s wonderful and written in an easy enough manner that those without a strong grounding in physics and chemistry can understand it. Wonderful!

  3. Cadmium paints are still a villain since their sloppy use add enough cadmium to the sewage to make it less usefull as fertilizer and wherever it ends up its poison. I hope cadmium paints get banned. Closing the flow of nutrients to make it a lot easier to feed future generations is much more important then giving them undigitilized artwork that do not fade.

  4. Lay off the colloidal silver!

    It’s not the best thing since antibiotics, it’s what antibiotics replaced. Doesn’t just make you blue, it makes you blind too.

    And hey… I want to know what happens to the people who drink the molten gallium?

    Wouldn’t work here: 84F is a cool day!

  5. During a recent tour of the atomic bomb complex in Oak Ridge, TN our tour guide, a former engineer in the complex, described how they restarted a filter house/chimney complex too quickly and showered the immediate area with radioactive ruthenium.

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