An Interview with Sam Kean

Image: Sam Kean

Image: Sam Kean

Meet Sam Kean: a writer who is conducting a great love affair with science.  His books, The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb, are an entertaining romp through the scientific method and the universe of big ideas. Sam is also a speaker at this year’s RG!

We asked him to tell us a little more about his work.

Q: How did you get your idea to write your first book?

Image: Amazon

Image: Amazon

I wrote my first book about the periodic table – the premise was to find a funny, spooky, or oddball story about every single element. In school, I guess I was always attracted to teachers who told us stories about science – those really stuck in my head for some reason. So I knew there were great stories out there about elements we all thought we knew well, like aluminum, but that had a really unusual back story. But I also suspected that there were just as many great tales out there about elements we never got to talk about in school – the huge swaths of the periodic table that no one ever mentions. I was just really curious about what those elements were like, and decided that writing a book was the best way to find out.

Q: Which science story do you think Mensans will enjoy the most?

Image: Amazon

Image: Amazon

I definitely have some favorite stories in The Violinist’s Thumb – about the dangers of eating polar bears (chapter 6), about human-chimp interbreeding experiments (chapter 9), about a man who survived both atomic bomb attacks in Japan (chapter 3). But Mensans in particular might like the story of Albert Einstein’s brain, which was taken without his or his family’s permission, chopped up, and studied, all to see what made him a genius. This story appears as part of a discussion about the genetics of general human intelligence and what gave us humans our grotesquely swollen brains.

Q: Have you always been interested in science?

Yeah, ever since I was young. Unlike many budding scientists, though, I wasn’t a tinkerer or someone who spent hours collecting bugs or playing with a chemistry set. I was just interested in big ideas, and knowing how systems of things worked. And I always loved stories. I guess I really didn’t differentiate between genres at all – I just wanted to be captivated.

Q: Write a haiku that describes yourself as a writer:

Oddball science tales.
You may giggle, you may groan,
But you will enjoy!

For the more straightforward details, I’m a full-time book writer based in D.C., although I do a lot of magazine work as well, for places like Science magazine.

Q: If you could teach everyone just one basic scientific principle, what would it be?

Evolution by natural selection. You could make an argument for the laws of thermodynamics, but evolution wins out for a few reasons. One, it’s ridiculous that there’s any controversy over this in the modern world, so if everyone could learn it, I think our society would be a lot better off, and we could spend our time arguing about actually controversial things. Two, if you really understand evolution by natural selection, it’s a great example of how to reason like a scientist. That’s the most important thing about science – it teaches you how to think. It’s not a body of facts to master, but a way of approaching the world.

Q: What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a book about neuroscience, due out in the summer of 2014. It will have the same feel as the first two books – funny, spooky, oddball stories from history – but this time focused on the human brain. It’s been a blast to write!

Thank you, Sam! We’re very excited about your program on Friday night at the RG!

Love Sam’s work? Check out his website,, like him on Facebook at, or follow him on Twitter @sam_kean.

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