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Sam Kean

Sam and cutting-edge science storyteller

Sam KeanSam Kean is a correspondent for Science Magazine and author of The New York Times' bestseller, 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, 2010).

Sam’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Air & Space, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Mental Floss, The American Scholar, and New Scientist, among others. He previously worked at The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Search Magazine, and is a columnist for 3 Quarks Daily. He has won numerous fellowships as well, including the Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellowship, a Mass Media fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellowship to cover science in Europe.

Sam Kean has won several awards, including runner-up in the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award in 2009, which is bestowed by the National Association of Science Writers to the best national science writer under the age of 30. He won the DC Science Writers Newsbrief Award in 2010. His work has also been featured on NPR multiple times, including “All Things Considered” and “On Point.”

Sam graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota with degrees in Physics and English.

Sam Kean is available for speeches, seminars and extended residencies exclusively through the MasterMedia Speakers Bureau.


The Disappearing Spoon - Sam Kean

The Periodic Table is one of man's crowning scientific achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

We learn that Marie Curie used to provoke jealousy in colleagues' wives when she'd invite them into closets to see her glow-in-the-dark experiments. And that Lewis and Clark swallowed mercury capsules across the country and their campsites are still detectable by the poison in the ground. Why did Gandhi hate iodine? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium? And why did tellurium lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

From the Big Bang to the end of time, it's all in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON.


“Sam brimming with puckish wit, and his love for the elements is downright infectious. Kean's book is so rambunctious and so much fun, you'll find yourself wanting to grab someone just to share tidbits. But the alchemy of this book is the way Kean makes you see and experience and appreciate the world differently, with a real sense of wonder and a joy of discovery, that is downright elemental. 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

“This is nonfiction to make you sound smart over gin and tonics: the human history behind the periodic table.”
Mary Pols, Time

“A nonstop parade of lively science stories… ebullient.”
Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“The best science writers...bring an enthusiasm for the material that infects those of us who wouldn't usually give a flying proton. Sam Kean...unpacks the periodic table's bag of tricks with such aplomb and fascination that material normally as heavy as lead transmutes into gold. With the anecdotal flourishes of Oliver Sacks and the populist accessibility of Malcolm Gladwell...Kean succeeds in giving us the cold hard facts, both human and chemical, behind the astounding phenomena without sacrificing any of the wonder--a trait vital to any science writer worth his NaCl. A-”
Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

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 degrees fahrenheit, 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.”
Publishers Weekly

“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.”
Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“It happens often in biology, but 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. Sam Kean's THE DISAPPEARING SPOON is a pleasure and full of insights. If only I had read it before taking chemistry.”
Mark Kurlanksy, 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

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

“Fascinating. Kean has Bill Bryson's comic touch when it comes to describing genius-lunatic scientists...The book is not so much a primer in chemistry as a lively history of the elements and the characters behind their discovery.”
New Scientist

“A quirky and refreshingly human look at a structure we usually think of as purely pragmatic.”

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON is 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 this book, do your chemistry teacher and all her future students a favor, and send her a copy.”

“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

“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

“While a few star elements like gold, oxygen, and plutonium get plenty of attention, the rest of the periodic table is rarely discussed outside of chemistry labs. But even the most obscure gasses and metals get some space from Science Magazine writer Sam Kean in his first book, THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements.

Kean starts by discussing the creation of the periodic table, detailing the breakthroughs and rivalries that led to the elegant system used to organize all the known elements in a way that can hang on a classroom wall. His work chronicles how human understanding of the elements has grown through the centuries through technological breakthroughs. The science is peppered with anecdotes about the scientists responsible, such as how Robert Bunsen loved experimenting with arsenic, the man credited with creating the first periodic table was a bigamist and anarchist, and the discoverer of X-rays terrified his wife, who thought the image of her bones was a premonition of death.

Each chapter starts with a line of periodic-table boxes, introducing the elements featured in the coming pages. Kean’s survey is focused on breadth, not depth, and few elements get more than a couple of paragraphs explaining their importance or discovery throughout history, ranging from how molybdenum gave German armaments an edge during World War I to how europium dyes make euros so difficult to counterfeit. He acknowledges that while new surprising properties of elements are being discovered all the time, some are still thought to be worthless, while others are given too much credit. Silicon is similar to carbon, but he shows how the differences between the two elements are enough to make silicon-based life highly unlikely.

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON only occasionally feels overly simplified or hard to follow. Kean comes across as naive when he bemoans the use of elements in warfare and writes that counterfeiters don’t understand that they could make more money working in an honest trade than trying to make their own currency. But most of the book is strong, a simple, well-written collection of comic, tragic, and just plain strange stories starring the members of the periodic table.”
Samantha Nelson, The A.V. Club

“To most of us, chemistry remains as mysterious as it did for our alchemist-obsessed ancestors in the Middle Ages. We were formally introduced to its "crowning achievement," the periodic table of elements in high school classes that we found to be as dull and murky as dirty dish water. The lucky few who somehow understood were able to pass through a door that was forever closed to the rest.

In THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements, science writer Sam Kean offers us another opportunity to open this portal: I realized that there's a funny or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element ... The table is one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind. It's both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook, and I wrote this book to peel back all of its layers.

This he does in a most readable fashion. Beginning with his favorite element, mercury, Kean entertains and enlightens us by working through the elements as we now know them with their discovery and vignettes of their uses and the characters (scientists) who built the periodic table one element at a time.

Did you know that early explorers Lewis and Clark's trail across the country can still be traced by the mercury left behind from the element-laden laxatives they consumed? (Historians now surmise that Meriwether Lewis may have suffered from brain damage brought on by this poisonous element.) Or that the mad hatter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was based on the fact that those who made hats in that period used a mercury wash to separate the fur from pelts and "gradually lost their hair and wits".

The title of book comes from a classic prank. The element gallium looks like its periodic table neighbor aluminum, but melts at around 80 degrees. Enterprising scientists would fashion a teaspoon out of this element. Imagine their guests' horror when the spoon disappeared as they stirred their tea.

From the benign bismuth ("it's the 'bis' in the hot-pink Pepto-Bismol") to its neighbor polonium, "the poisoner's poison of the nuclear age," Kean points out that the elements, and their chemistry, are an integral part of our daily lives. The more we know about them, the better off our life will be.

As he states in his introduction: We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.

If Kean had been my high school chemistry teacher, life may have been a little different. You and your student will enjoy this one.”
Tim O'Connell, The Jacksonville Sun

Above are reprinted with permission.

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