Chemical Reaction: Alumnus Sam Kean Writes a Periodic Table Bestseller

2002 English and Physics summa cum laude graduate Sam Kean wrote a bestseller in his first try, the lively 2010 nonfiction work The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the Periodic Table of the Elements (Little, Brown & Company).

Image of Sam KeanBA alumnus Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the Periodic Table of the Elements, just released in paperback, was publishing's sleeper hit of 2010: a science history that surprised its author as much as anyone by making the New York Times Bestseller List, primarily via word of mouth. But South Dakota native Kean, a 2002 summa cum laude double major in English and Physics, has fashioned a ridiculously readable collection of anecdotes about the elements, from hydrogen to ununbium; like many readers, Boston Globe reviewer Caroline Leavitt was left "wanting to grab someone just to share tidbits."

"I really think that the human mind works best through stories," notes Kean in an email from his home in Washington, D.C. "You can absorb a lot more science than you'd think if it's delivered in a narrative form. Even with purely chemistry details, like how atoms behave, we can't help but personify things. An English major really helped me see beyond the equations and technical details and focus on the stories."

Kean's tales snag the reader with idiosyncratic personalities, quirky details, and unexpected twists: the blue-skinned libertarian candidate (fearing millennium collapse, he had taken silver for his health); the cadmium-tipped missile that was Godzilla's downfall (an earlier industrial dump of the stuff caused one of Japan's first toxic tragedies); the Nobel-winning scientist charged with war crimes (the discoverer of nitrogen fertilizer went on to devise Germany's World War I chemical warfare). As the latter shows, the scientists in the book appear to almost act like elements, interacting with others, with ideas, and with their times in unique ways. In the process, they demonstrate a full range of human vices and virtues, from hubris and envy to humility and environmental activism.

"The important thing was to be fair," stresses Kean. "It's fun to include salacious details, but it's not like I was dealing with the Marquis de Sade here--my characters were known and deserve to be known for their work, not their personal peccadilloes. So you want to give readers something fun or outlandish, but not leave them with a warped picture. . . . [However,] the characteristics that help people into positions of power and get their work noticed are not always the most flattering characteristics, which makes people more complicated and more interesting to read and write about."

Beyond the indelible stories, the book benefits from Kean's inventive, often comic, metaphors and comparisons. One or two critics seemed shocked by this "irreverent" and "slangy" approach to the material, as if the periodic table should not be parsed by a mind that enjoys the science behind the tracking of the latrine trail left by mercury laxative-abusing Lewis and Clark. In perhaps the book's pinnacle of brio, a half-page section about selenium leaps from references to spiritualism to AIDS to "animal meth" to Custer's Last Stand to the Greek and Latin words for the moon. While the book's popularizing style has been favorably compared to Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell, and Bill Bryson, it's not hard to imagine a future reviewer describing something as "Sam Kean-esque." Professor of English Emeritus Michael Dennis Browne, who directed Kean's honors thesis, a collection of poems titled Cripple, recalls particularly appreciating "his ability to surprise the reader with unexpected shifts and swerves." (Cripple won the Mark David Clawson Award for the best summa cum laude thesis by an undergraduate student in English.)

Spoon cover 150.jpgKean describes the engaging style as a choice--to keep general readers entertained while also fitting in information about 118 elements--but it is also clearly a product of his transparent enthusiasm for his subject. Kean had been dreaming for years of collecting in one place stories relating to the elements, including some he first heard from physics professors at the University; he claims the book turned out exactly how he envisioned it (with one notable exception: the idea of a chapter per element became unwieldy; he also credits his publishers for the "genius" title). The result is that, as Entertainment Weekly raved, "Kean succeeds in giving us the cold hard facts, both human and chemical, behind the astounding phenomena without sacrificing any of the wonder."

Kean cites Professor Browne and Professor Josephine Lee as English faculty whose classes he especially enjoyed. The respect is mutual. Professor Lee, who taught Kean in an honors seminar, remembers him as "exceptional": "his writing, his wonderful insights during class discussion, and his ability to analyze texts of all different kinds (so I'm not surprised he's taking on the periodic table)."

Kean at one point in The Disappearing Spoon describes the German writer Goethe as a science dilettante ("it was fun to tweak him a little") while also noting that Goethe received a broad education and is still hailed as "the last man who knew everything." Kean's own liberal arts-physics straddle seems to have some resonance here--as does this book's digressive ride through history, alchemy, mythology, literature, forensics, psychology, etymology, geology, etc. "Part of the reason I wrote The Spoon was to dispel the notion that the periodic table was just about chemistry," reports Kean, who is a correspondent for Science magazine. His greater ambition, one senses, is to dispel the notion that the ideas behind chemistry and physics are too difficult for the general public to grasp, let alone understand their significance in daily life past and present. "Had I stayed just a physics major I fear I might have been too wrapped up in just the science," he reflects, "and missed the chance to really reach people on another level."

Here in English, we like to say that the study of literature is the study of humanity. But perhaps it takes an English-Physics fusion to see, as Kean does, the "human artifact" which is the periodic table as "both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook" and to prove that theory conclusively.

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on June 1, 2011 12:54 PM.

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