Science Book a Day Interviews Sam Kean


Special thanks to Sam Kean for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and now he’s a writer in Washington, D.C. His stories have appeared in The New York Times MagazineMental FlossSlatePsychology Today, and The New Scientist, among other places, and his work has been featured on “Radiolab” and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” among other shows. His books The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb were national bestsellers, and both were named an Amazon “Top 5″ science books of the year. The Disappearing Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society for one of the top science books of 2010, while The Violinist’s Thumb was a finalist for PEN’s literary science writing award. – From Sam’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons?

What inspired me was doubt, disbelief, skepticism. Because I was reading a story one day about someone who suffered a brain injury and lost some very specific mental attributes, and I said to myself, “Baloney. That cannot be true – no way.” But not only were these stories true, but they revealed an astonishing amount about how the brain works. And I just realized that, wow, not only are these stories fascinating to hear about, but I bet you could do a whole book and learn what every part of the brain does just based on these stories. So I decided to write that book!

#2 – Your book includes some amazing stories. How did you decide which stories to keep and which ones to exclude?

It was tough to pare them down! First thing, I wanted to cover the whole brain, every lobe, all the major structures. Beyond that, I focused on the most compelling stories. The items I couldn’t I stop thinking about, the ones I wanted to tell all my friends about, and so on.

#3 – Your books have ranged from chemistry (The Disappearing Spoon) to neuroscience. How do you do your research for these disparate topics?

Just jump in! Often, I’ve written about the topics before for a magazine or newspaper, or even in another book. For instance, I wrote about Einstein’s brain a little in my second book, The Violinist’s Thumb. But beyond that, it’s just a lot of hours reading and hunting through footnotes in the library for interesting bits.

#4 – You have a strong sense of stories and narrative in your books. Is this important to you and the way to communicate to the reader?

Absolutely. One criterion is that I always, always make sure there’s a good story involved. First, stories make a book much more memorable and entertaining. We human beings, a social species, and we crave knowing more about other people. More  importantly, you can learn so much science through stories. It’s just the way the human brain remembers information best, when it’s presented in story form – with characters, with a beginning middle, and end, with a climax, and so on. That’s just how our minds work, and you need to take advantage of that.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

We are – we just signed up for two more books with my publisher, both again emphasizing stories and science. The first one will be called something like World in One Breath, and it will be going back toward chemistry, the subject of my first book…

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