Sam Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including The Bastard Brigade, The Dueling Neurosurgeons, and The Disappearing Spoon. His stories have appeared in The Best American Nature and Science Writing, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and Slate, and his work has been featured on NPR’s “Radiolab,” “Science Friday,” “All Things Considered,” and “Fresh Air.”
At what age did you start writing?
Roughly age 20, my junior year of college. I did both fiction in school and nonfiction on my campus newspaper at the University of Minnesota.
What does it mean for a writer to get the title of a New York Times bestselling author?
It’s a huge thrill! I certainly didn’t expect, but it’s a nice reward, and best of all, it gives the book a big boost as well.
Where did you get your material for the Disappearing Spoon and for the other true stories?
All over – stories from teachers, lectures from scientists, books, newspapers, dusty old periodicals. Stories are buried everywhere.
The Disappearing Spoon gives a Periodic table to the human face. Do you see your book as a possible guide for educational purposes?
Yeah, my book has been assigned by hundreds of teachers across the world to bring chemistry alive and put a human face on the periodic table. It’s really struck a chord in that area.
You have written on the history of the human brain and the problems linked with it, over time. What would be your observation of the trauma associated with the younger generation today compared to those before the onset of the social media?
Using social media changes our brains.
I don’t know if “trauma” is the right word. Using social media changes our brains – but so does reading, and using tools, and everything else we do. I do think that social media encourages bad habits like nastiness and close-mindedness. Those things existed before, of course, but social media can amplify them. But that’s a bigger issue than just the effects on the brain.
The new millennium brought us the new millennium’s generation who are becoming very demanding, it is not enough anymore to choose the right topic and to fit the style to it, than to invent the one that will hold their attention? It seems that you have found a magical approach for how to be popular among youngsters. How do you write, do you imagine your reader or have you invented a perfect one?
I also write for scientists who probably know the science, but don’t know the history of their field.
Well, I write for two groups. General readers who just want a fun – and even magical – introduction to some topic. One full of heroes and villains and conflict and drama and everything else that makes a juicy story. I also write for scientists who probably know the science, but don’t know the history of their field, and appreciate having their eyes opened about everyone who came before them.
In what ways are the millennials smarter than the previous generations, in your opinion?
Ha, well, I’m a bigger believer in the consistency of human nature. So I think millennials are just as smart as every other generation, for better and worse.
A fair number of our readers also write from time to time. What would be your advice to them on how to get their work published?
Start at smaller online publications and other outlets, and work your way up. And take as many assignments as possible, to get as much work as possible. Do internships as well.
Your writing is quite wide ranging. How do you go about your research?
I read as widely as possible, and I’m never afraid to hunt down an extra source and do the extra work.
Your style of writing is similar to a one to one conversation. Are you a good storyteller in person?
You’d have to ask my friends. 🙂 I have had people say that reading one of my books – or listening to one of my podcasts – is just like listening to me speak. So I do think I have a distinct style.
Your writing is mainly related to science and scientists. What separates today’s scientists from the ones, during for example, the times of Galileo?
Well, there were very few scientists back then. And they weren’t professionals, doing science for money. They did it strictly for interest and love.
Choosing the topic of The Second World War, I would think it has an educational purpose, to remind everybody what shouldn’t be repeated any more, anytime? How do you choose the topic that you are going to write about?
Mostly I just want big, juicy science stories – plenty of heroes and villains and conflict and drama.
Our main readership is young people aged 20-35. What would you want them to take from your books?
That science is a deeply human activity. It’s not separate from art or music or emotions or love or anything else that’s human. Science is a wildly creative field, and scientists experience all the good and bad emotions we all do. And it’s one of the triumphs of human existence, so we should know as much about the people involved as possible.
Please tell us about your growing up years, your self motivation and those who inspired you.
My dad always loved a good turn of phrase, and my mom (a teacher) was a wonderful story-teller. So I strive to combine both of those things.
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Photos: From the Archive of Sam Kean
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