the disappearing spoon

September 2018

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

by Sam Kean

Hosted by: Tom Miller, III, Professor of Chemistry


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.


Meet Tom Miller, III

Tom Miller

Dr. Tom Miller was born in San Diego, California and grew up in College Station, Texas. After completing his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University, he attended graduate school in the UK on a British Marshall Scholarship and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 2005, working with David Clary and David Manolopoulos. Tom then returned to the US for a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley to work with David Chandler and Bill Miller. He joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology in 2008 and was promoted to full professor in 2013. While at Caltech, Tom has received awards that include the Sloan Research Fellowship, NSF CAREER Award, Associated Students of Caltech Teaching Award, Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, and the 2015 ACS Early-Career Award in Theoretical Chemistry.


Tom Miller 2.jpg

Tom miller

by the book - book club host profile

Q. What are you reading right now?
A. With a three-year-old and a newborn, most of my current reading is done out loud.

Q. What is your favorite genre? Who are your favorite writers in the genre?
A. in my downtime, I prefer novels. I’m not sure that I really have a favorite author, although I’ve gone through various Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, and Roddy Doyle phases in the past. Tough to decipher a pattern…

Q. Which genres do you avoid?
A. Anything that is overly philosophical, flowery, and plot-free.

Q. What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quannah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. The stunning history of the region around my home town of College Station, TX.

Q. What was the most influential book you have read?
A. Planet of the Blind, a memoir by Stephen Kuusisto. Truly inspiring.