The Disappearing Spoon


Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?*

The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. THE DISAPPEARING SPOON masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, and discovery–from the Big Bang through the end of time.

*Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. A classic science prank is to mold gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch guests recoil as their utensils disappear.



As a child in the early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth — food, dentist’s tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever — and if no one else was around, I’d talk anyway. This habit led to my fascination with the periodic table the first time I was left alone with a thermometer under my tongue. I came down with strep throat something like a dozen times in the second and third grades, and for days on end it would hurt to swallow. I didn’t mind staying home from school and medicating myself with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Being sick always gave me another chance to break an old-fashioned mercury thermometer, too.

Lying there with the glass stick under my tongue, I would answer an imagined question out loud, and the thermometer would slip from my mouth and shatter on the hardwood floor, the liquid mercury in the bulb scattering like ball bearings. A minute later, my mother would drop to the floor despite her arthritic hip and begin corraling the balls. Using a toothpick like a hockey stick, she’d brush the supple spheres toward one another until they almost touched. Suddenly, with a final nudge, one sphere would gulp the other. A single, seamless ball would be left quivering where there had been two. She’d repeat this magic trick over and over across the fl oor, one large ball swallowing the others until the entire silver lentil was reconstructed.

Once she’d gathered every bit of mercury, she’d take down the green-labeled plastic pill bottle that we kept on a knickknack shelf in the kitchen between a teddy bear with a fishing pole and a blue ceramic mug from a 1985 family reunion. After rolling the ball onto an envelope, she’d carefully pour the latest thermometer’s worth of mercury onto the pecan-sized glob in the bottle. Sometimes, before hiding the bottle away, she’d pour the quicksilver into the lid and let my siblings and me watch the futuristic metal whisk around, always splitting and healing itself flawlessly. I felt pangs for children whose mothers so feared mercury they wouldn’t even let them eat tuna. Medieval alchemists, despite their lust for gold, considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe. As a child I would have agreed with them. I would even have believed, as they did, that it transcended pedestrian categories of liquid or solid, metal or water, heaven or hell; that it housed otherworldly spirits.

Mercury acts this way, I later found out, because it is an element. Unlike water (H2O), or carbon dioxide (CO2), or almost anything else you encounter day to day, you cannot naturally separate mercury into smaller units. In fact, mercury is one of the more cultish elements: its atoms want to keep company only with other mercury atoms, and they minimize contact with the outside world by crouching into a sphere. Most liquids I spilled as a child weren’t like that. Water tumbled all over, as did oil, vinegar, and unset Jell-O. Mercury never left a speck. My parents always warned me to wear shoes whenever I dropped a thermometer, to prevent those invisible glass shards from getting into my feet. But I never recall warnings about stray mercury. For a long time, I kept an eye out for element eighty at school and in books, as you might watch for a childhood friend’s name in the newspaper. I’m from the Great Plains and had learned in history class that Lewis and Clark had trekked through South Dakota and the rest of the Louisiana Territory with a microscope, compasses, sextants, three mercury thermometers, and other instruments. What I didn’t know at first is that they also carried with them six hundred mercury laxatives, each four times the size of an aspirin.


  • Part I, Orientation: Column by Column, Row by Row
    • 1. Geography Is Destiny
    • 2. Near Twins and Black Sheep: The Genealogy of Elements
    • 3. The Galápagos of the Periodic Table
  • Part II, Making Atoms, Breaking Atoms
    • 4. Where Atoms Come From: “We Are All Star Stuff ”
    • 5. Elements in Times of War
    • 6. Completing the Table . . . with a Bang
    • 7. Extending the Table, Expanding the Cold War
  • Part III, Periodic Confusion: The Emergence of Complexity
    • 8. From Physics to Biology
    • 9. Poisoner’s Corridor: “Ouch-Ouch”
    • 10. Take Two Elements, Call Me in the Morning
    • 11. How Elements Deceive
  • Part IV, The Elements of Human Character
    • 12. Political Elements
    • 13. Elements as Money
    • 14. Artistic Elements
    • 15. An Element of Madness
  • Part V, Element Science Today and Tomorrow
    • 16. Chemistry Way, Way Below Zero
    • 17. Spheres of Splendor: The Science of Bubbles
    • 18. Tools of Ridiculous Precision
    • 19. Above (and Beyond) the Periodic Table


Periodic Table Quotes

Also known as “epithets I’d considered but forgot about”. Includes (bad) jokes.

Periodic Table Maps

See virtually (ha, ha) every place mentioned in The Disappearing Spoon on a map. The periodic table, in other words, told through cartography.

Periodic Table Videos

See the elements song, exploding candy, disappearing spoons, and more!

Periodic Table Puzzles

How well do you know the table. Well enough to beat 1:00?

Exotic Periodic Tables

The table in all manner of sizes and shapes (including human)


“Kean…unpacks the periodic table’s bag of tricks with such aplomb and fascination that material normally as heavy as lead transmutes into gold. A-”
—Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

“Kean’s writing sparks like small shocks…he gives science a whiz-bang verve so that every page becomes one you cannot wait to turn just to see what he’s going reveal next.”
—Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe

“[Kean turns] The Disappearing Spoon into a nonstop parade of lively science stories…ebullient.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Kean’s palpable enthusiasm and the thrill of knowledge and invention the book imparts can infect even the most right-brained reader.”
Christine Thomas, Miami Herald

“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

“Nearly 150 years of wide-ranging science…and Kean makes it all interesting. Entertaining and enlightening.”

“Fascinating stories…Kean writes in a whimsical yet easy-to-read style.”
Library Journal

“Only once in a rare while does an author come along with the craft and the vision to capture the fun and fascination of chemistry. The Disappearing Spoon is a pleasure and full of insights. If only I had read it before taking chemistry.”
—Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt and Cod

“If you stared a little helplessly at the chart of the periodic table on the wall of your high school chemistry class, then this is the book for you. It elucidates both the meanings and the pleasures of those numbers and letters, and does so with style and dash.”
—Bill McKibben. author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

The Disappearing Spoon shines a welcome light on the beauty of the periodic table. Follow plain speaking and humorous Sam Kean into its intricate geography and stray into astronomy, biology, and history, learn of neon rain and gas warfare, meet both ruthless and selfless scientists, and before it is over fall head over heels for the anything but arcane subject of chemistry.”
—Bill Streever, author of Cold