A nagging running injury has kept me elliptical-bound for the better part of six weeks, so lately I’ve been Hoovering books on my Kindle.
You’ve probably never heard of Sam Kean (he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page). If you know the name, it’s probably because you know the voice from Radiolab, where he’s talked about everything from a man who invented technology that has saved and killed a remarkable number of people (that’s Fritz Haber, of the Haber process for producing nitrogen and the “Father of Chemical Warfare” Haber) to the man who survived both atomic bombings, Tsutomu Yamaguchi.
If there’s anything I’m evangelical about, it’s Radiolab, and I liked the way Kean told these stories, so I picked up Kean’s first book, The Disappearing Spoon. And then I read it. Quickly. And then I quickly picked up his next two: The Violinist’s Thumb and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.
Each deals with a separate science topic – elements, genetics, and neurology, respectively – and is driven by historical anecdotes followed by in-depth explanation. Each is a delightful read.
And that’s more impressive than it sounds. It’s not easy to make the periodic table (in and of itself) all that interesting; genetics is a difficult topic to truly understand, and so is neurology. Kean combines genuinely fascinating stories (see: Haber and Yamaguchi) with a writing style that’s colloquial without attempting “Talk Hip With the Kids” and lucid without being shallow. (To wit, from The Disappearing Spoon: “As a metal, polonium is useless. It decays so quickly it might have been a mocking metaphor for Poland itself.” Which, if you know anything about the history of Poland, is both funny and sadly true.)
Scientists have an undeserved reputation as boring, stodgy, and all-around uninteresting. This could not be further from the truth – it seems like every major invention has a major backstory full of backstabbing, deceit, indifference, and cunning – and it is Kean’s obvious affection for these scientists and their stories that gives otherwise dense material the padding to flourish.
The books are goldmines of interesting tales and facts; I picked a random paragraph in my book notes of The Disappearing Spoon and this is what came up:
But the taste buds for sweet and sour are easy to fleece. Beryllium tricks them, as does a special protein in the berries of some species of plants. Aptly named miraculin, this protein strips out the unpleasant sourness in foods without altering the overtones of their taste, so that apple cider vinegar tastes like apple cider, or Tabasco sauce like marinara. Miraculin does this both by muting the taste buds for sour and by bonding to the taste buds for sweet and putting them on hair-trigger alert for the stray hydrogen ions (H+) that acids produce.
Which is pretty interesting. Each of the books is a wealth of factlets like that, without devolving into a book of anecdotes. Not easy to do.
I could go through each book individually, but really they’re all excellent, and you should just start with whichever topic you think you’d find most interesting.