Sam Kean on Using History to Humanize Science

Courtesy of Sam Kean

Sam Kean

In his first book, The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean tackled a topic that strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of many high school chemistry students: the periodic table. But in Kean’s hands, the table became a springboard for stories about discovery, obsession, betrayal—not to mention a trove of fascinating scientific trivia. The Disappearing Spoon became a New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2010 and has since been translated into 23 languages. “The book is not so much a primer in chemistry as a lively history of the elements and the characters behind their discovery,” wrote one reviewer.

Kean’s next three books applied the same humor, lively storytelling, and historical perspective to genetics (The Violinist’s Thumb), neuroscience (The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), and the atmosphere (Caesar’s Last Breath). Kean’s fifth and most recent book, The Bastard Brigade, recounts the story of the eclectic group of scientists, soldiers, and spies who conspired to sabotage Nazi nuclear weapons research in World War II.

In his introduction to the 2018 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology, which he edited, Kean refuted what he sees as a widespread public misconception that science is a strictly logical endeavor. “In reality it’s an intensely human activity, employing the full range of both reason and emotions, of logos and pathos,” he wrote. “And the best science writing captures all that—there’s conflict and characters and drama in these tales, a real sense of craft and storytelling.”

Kean spoke with Greg Miller about his approach to research, storytelling, and finding the human side of science.

I really admired The Disappearing Spoon, in large part because I had no idea there were so many interesting stories and characters behind the periodic table. At what point did you realize there was enough there for a book?

I’ve always collected stories about scientific things. When teachers told stories in class I always enjoyed that, and I realized a lot of stories involved an element or had some sort of angle on the periodic table. I’d always been curious about all the elements you never hear about in class. I’d been fishing about for a book idea and it occurred to me, I bet you could find a weird story about every element on the table. I thought that would actually be a very fun book to write. I Googled it, thinking, I’m sure it’s already been done, but it hadn’t. So I thought I’d give it a shot.

Was it difficult pitching that idea as a first-time author?

I think a lot of agents probably just hit delete on the message. They got to the words “periodic table” and thought, Yuck, I hated that thing. So there was a bit of a challenge there, but I ended up finding a great agent [Rick Broadhead] who didn’t have a scientific background but just got the idea and liked the stories, and we just sort of ran with it from there.

What do you think sold him on it as a non-science person? 

I think he liked that there were a lot of, like, Wow, did you know? stories. I was trying to make it fun and lively to show people you can have fun with science. It’s not all tough equations and math. He liked the enthusiasm and the range of the book, that it was going to be talking about war, and poison, and art, and lots of different things.

How do you go about gathering string for a book like that?

It’s basically a matter of reading as widely as possible. I have a file I keep of anecdotes and things I hear. I jot them down and add some keywords. Then you start Googling things. I use Google Scholar, Google Books. It’s hunting through footnotes and following up on that. It’s paging through science-history journals for ideas.

Do you have some genius filing system or app for keeping everything organized?

No, it’s just a Word document, and having a lot of keywords. I think, If I were searching for this in six months, what words would I use? and I make sure those words are in there somewhere so I can hit command-F and find them.

I read somewhere that you have a degree in library science? Does that help with your book research?

I think it opened me up to knowing there were different sources out there, and not being confined to just books or stuff you can find on the web. There’s specialized reference material. It’s not like I use it every day, but knowing those sources exist means being able to go to a library and say, “I bet there’s something like this out there. Can you help me find it?”

In The Disappearing Spoon there’s a bit where I talk about the longest word in the English language [the 1,185-letter chemical name for a virus protein]. I was able to nail that down based on finding it in Chemical Abstracts, which is like a dictionary reference for chemists.

Do you do a lot of interviews for your books?

It’s mostly library research and reading because they’re more historical. I talk to historians sometimes to clarify a point or get a little bit more information, but mostly I’m dealing with archives and historical papers, stuff like that.

In Caesar’s Last Breath, you walk readers through some calculations and use chemistry and physics to reconstruct the final moments of a man named Harry Truman, who was killed (OK, vaporized) in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. When you do that sort of thing, do you ever run it by a scientist?

I mostly do my own calculations. I can’t actually remember where that one came from, but every once in a while you can find something fun in a manual or journal that’s devoted to teaching problems. It might be a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s something to capture students’ imagination.

Your books are always so fun to read because your style is very conversational. Do you have a specific person or audience in mind when you’re writing?

No one in particular. But I’ve always liked telling stories, so I imagine if I wanted to tell one of my friends, how would I make it interesting and lively and make them care about it in some way. Most of them don’t have scientific backgrounds.

I do have a couple friends who are very good friends but have trouble making any sort of logical leap on their own. So sometimes I have them in mind and I think, Could so-and-so get through this paragraph, or are they going to stop and ask me questions? Obviously a reader can’t stop and ask you questions, so I’ll think, OK, I better lay this out a little more, add a little more context, or something like that. That’s usually more toward the end where I’m trying to polish it and get it in its final form.

In several of your books you retell stories that are probably familiar to some readers, like the story of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century friar whose experiments with peas helped reveal the laws of heredity. What’s your approach to doing that so you don’t lose readers who don’t know the story but don’t bore ones who do?

Mendel’s peas is a good example. Most people probably know the story, but people don’t know as much about Mendel himself and what he was like. I think it’s a good idea to focus on the person as much as the work that they’re doing. That can help with science writing in general. The ideas are obviously important, but if you make it about the person too, that makes it easier to make it compelling and make people care about the story.

On a related note, what about the times where you have to explain some bit of very basic science? Do you have to get in a certain state of mind to write enthusiastically about something that you’ve probably read a bunch of times?

Well, maybe I’ve read it before but I’ve never had a chance to write it, so it can be exciting in that way. Even if it’s a well-told tale, you can make it yours and tell it in your own way. Yeah, it’s fundamental basic science, but you have to try to make sure readers are going to come along with you. Those are the passages I probably spend the most time writing and rewriting and go back to most often. In part that’s because there’s no narrative to them, so there’s less of an obvious way to construct them, but it’s also because I know those are the passages more people are likely to get tripped up on. You really want to make sure they’re smooth. You probably want to put them aside and come back to them later to make sure they’re as readable as possible.

One thing that’s hard for science writers is knowing that you’re simplifying. I’ve found that using footnotes can be helpful in that you can give a general overview for the average reader, and then say, well, it’s not quite that simple for these reasons. You don’t have to slow the narrative down or give details that might be confusing for someone who’s reading this for the first time.

You seem to really enjoy writing about people and their quirks. What’s the key to making characters come alive?

It’s self-selecting in the sense that I probably spend more time writing about people who are compelling in the first place. But again, I think it’s a matter of reading widely. You’ll find a line here, a detail there about their lives and you sort of piece them all together. It helps to think about the arc of their life. Were they someone who struggled early and had a breakthrough toward the end that they felt redeemed them? Or were they someone who had success early and petered out at the end? If you have a consistent idea of who the character is, that helps in knowing what details to include and how to frame them as you’re going through the story.

 

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You sometimes reconstruct or imagine a scene. How do you determine where to do that?

I think it depends on how immersed you want the reader to be in the story. If it’s a dramatic moment and you really want to make sure they’re immersed in the moment and understand the gravity of it, that might be where you want to do something like that. Like it’s a big moment in the book and you really want people to be there.

There’s a scene in The Bastard Brigade where two scientists had gotten a letter about Werner Heisenberg and they were very worried about it [because it suggested the eminent physicist had started working on nuclear weapons for the Nazis], and they sat down to brood over it with a bottle of booze. It’s less like dialogue and more like imagining their thoughts as they spin out this ridiculous plan to go and kidnap Heisenberg over in Germany. It’s a funny scene, but it has some consequences later. One whole subplot of the book basically develops from this moment. (The inspiration came from some passages in the book Heisenberg’s War, which were based on interviews with the two scientists before they died.)

As they poured another round the idea got a little bolder. Instead of just sounding Heisenberg out, what if they could disrupt the German project somehow? Maybe by delaying Heisenberg’s return to Germany. Or heck, maybe they could delay him permanently—detain him and prevent him from returning at all. It was a stupid idea, of course—far too risky. But after another sip or two, it didn’t seem so ridiculous anymore.

— From The Bastard Brigade

Do the skills you’ve developed as an author help you bring out the personality of contemporary scientists, say if you’re working on a magazine story?

Yeah, I think it’s all of one piece. You’re looking for revealing anecdotes and trying to get them to relax and show a more interesting side. I think every scientist, if you talk to them, can put their work in terms of a story.

I’ve always thought scientific papers are misleading in that they present this very pristine view of how the experiments went and the results they got. They don’t show all the frustrations and stuff like that. I actually wish when I was a science student someone would have pointed that out to me—that they’re not always getting perfect results the first time.

And I think that’s often the most interesting part and the part that reveals their character. Did they struggle with it for a while, or did they take time off and go to the movies instead and have a flash of insight? I think if you dig into that you can really make the story pop and bring it to life.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book. It’s going to be called something like Sinful Science. It’s about scientists who pushed too far or pursued their research to the point where they trampled ethical boundaries or committed crimes. It’s kind of a compilation of true crime scientific tales.

I’m also working on a podcast that will launch sometime this spring. It’s going to be called The Disappearing Spoon. I have a lot of anecdotes I’ve always wanted to do something with but never really found a place for them, so this is going to be that place. I’ll be telling the stories and trying to bring them to life with sound effects and things like that. I’m excited for it!

 

Courtesy of Greg Miller

Greg Miller

Greg Miller is a science journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and co-author of All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey. He has written for Wired, Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @dosmonos.

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