by Weston Cutter
I’ll admit at the start of this that I’m not what anybody’d call a chemistry dork, but I would’ve once fit that tag. Less important than the tag, though, is that I’m terribly fond of chemistry—one of my favorite people on earth is a HS chemistry teacher, and, I’m startled over and over to realize, about half of my reading has to do with wanting to talk with the people I love and/or find fascinating (a physicist, a city planner, an actor, a bunch of writers, a few real politically motivated folks). Anyway: chemistry. I’m a fan. As should you be, for all sorts of reasons, but I won’t dig too much presently into it.
And I won’t be digging, of course, because I don’t have to: if you want a quick and certain push into the wonderfully loving arms of chemistry, your book is The Disappearing Spoon, a debut by Sam Kean. Let me say this: earlier this year I proclaimed Joe Flood’s The Fires as the year’s best book, and, while I still stand behind that claim, I’d like to add that Sam Kean’s Spoon features a whole hell of a lot of the same magnificent qualities that made Flood’s book so amazing (also, I’d like to point out that both books are debuts, both authors young white dudes, and both authors names feature the same # of vowels, just in case anyone wants to cross-reference stuff or consider ancilary features I may or may not inadvertently be attracted to).
The first and most prominent feature of Kean’s fantastic book is the casual genius he just shrugs off, casting off like extra spark from some barely-imaginably great conflagration, page by page. I have corroboration of the following: 30 seconds into reading page 67, I stood and started shouting, amazed. Ugly admission: I didn’t know how to pronounce the word scythe until my mid-20s, and there are still a clutch of words I fear saying publicly simply because I’ve only ever read them. Still, I’d like to think I know lots of words—and yet here came Kean, page 67, flattening me with the word spall, which is both a noun and a verb, and has to do with stuff flaking (to spall is the act; the resultant dust from something spalling is spall). Hence the title of this post, too, fyi.
So it’s a casual genius of certain words, yes: that’s true. However, it’s not just that Kean’s linguistically solid—it’s that, as examples, he can draw from all over the place: dude writes with the exact sort of catholocism small, liberal arts colleges hope to engender in their charges. Here’s a nowhere-near-as-great-as-could-be example of just this sort of writing:
“For Lord knows what reason—perhaps lingering undergraduate fascination—this young man decided beer, not hydrogen, was the best liquid to shoot the atomic gun at. He really thought that beer would lead to an epochal breakthrough in subatomic science. You can almost imagine him smuggling Budweiser into the lab at night, perhaps splitting a six-pack between science and his stomach as he filled thimble-sized beakers with America’s finest, heated them almost to boiling, and bombarded them to produce the most exotic particles then known to physics.”
That’s from page 297, and note not just how much Kean knows to get into this stuff, but dig the style, that great, great writing (“splitting a six-pack between science and his stomach” is up there, as far as new favorite phrases). Not coincidentally, in his True/Slant profile, Kean admitted to digging DFWallace, whose influence isn’t tiringly obvious in Kean’s writing, but the great man’s presence is evident in the humor, the kindness, the shocking level of concern Kean shows the reader by trying, over and over, to explian stuff well, thoroughly, clearly. Think I’m kidding? I now understand valences better than I have at any point since advanced chem in 10th grade; even relatively complex notions regarding atomic weight and protons are clear and understandable in Kean’s hands (I’d now like to urge him to write about high energy theoretical physics, specifically the Higgs boson, on which a friend’s spent like 5 years working and doing hard science and math and which I still grasp with a shame-inducing level of tenuousness).
Even with all of that, here’s the real deal: The Disappearing Spoon is actual fun to read. Each element’s touched upon in fascinating ways, from how the element was discovered to how it’s ended up being dominantly used to, well, how the element could be used as a practical joke (hence the book’s title). The Disappearing Spoon is also one of the most memorable books I’ve read in some time, which has lots to do with Kean’s writing: we’ve all read books which are chock-full of interesting data but which, on flipping the thing shut, nothing sticks. Aside from the wonderful word spall, I’ve learned, from Kean, a whole bunch about poisons (though I’ve been in the market for a bit, having a couple months back read D. Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook), the weird history of how elements were claimed and named (neither of which processes were standardized for some time), aspects of radioactivity, and, not least, the geographic area in which the most elements have been discovered (too good to give away). Not for nothing, too, Kean pulls off that other near-seismic DFW-type trick: all his footnotes are eminently fun reading. I saw last week that this book got press in one of the recent issues of Time magazine, and it’s very much that sort of book—one which, if the world’s a good place, everyone will be talking about it. Get in on it now.
(Kean’s all over the place online–at True/Slant, above, but also at Slate, where he’s been blogging the periodic table this whole month, plus that was his grinning mug on the NYTimes this weekend—all that’s well worth a glance or twelve. Also, he was great enough to answer some questions over email, which are as follows…)
1. In the most general possible way, what are your influences (I saw somewhere you mentioned DFW–talk as much about him as you want—I’m always asking people how he influences them anyway)? For writing, for living, for (in your particular example) looking at the history of science and Chemistry, etc. Take this in any direction you’d like—Cummings, in that intro from one of his collections, said something about how his poems were competing with July 4th and locomotives; if you’ve got a notion of any relationship your writing’s in akin to that, by all means, share. And how’d you get into writing, too? Before you wrote nonfiction about chemistry and spoons disappearing and Mendeleev, did you write poetry about that stuff? Or short stories?
SPK: Wow, I’ve never tried to compete with a major public holiday. I imagine my reading and influence list would look frightfully disorganized to anyone who tried to catalogue it. I wander between all sorts of genres and styles, from pulp to university press stuff. I’ve even got this amazing pop-up book on my shelf—one of the figures jumps up four feet or something from the page! I do love DFW—love his energy and lively language and heart. There’s nothing he’s ever written that I wouldn’t read. But he can be a dangerous influence, as most great stylists can be. It’s too easy (at least for me) to get excited by an essay he’s written and slip into bad, derivative David Foster Wallace-style writing. In general, I’d say I’m either looking for really vibrant use of language, line-by-line, or a great story.
As for me as a writer: Probably like every other writer out there, I dabbled in writing poetry and fiction in college. And I do miss them at times. I got to interview E.O. Wilson recently, a hero of mine (and now that I’m thinking about it, you could add Bertrand Russell to the list, too). Wilson of course writes nonfiction, but he recently published a novel. When I asked why, he said that people respect nonfiction, but they read fiction—fiction is something you absorb and carry around with you, and that’s very powerful. I also miss the concentration of writing poems, and the obsessive attention to the language. But overall, I’m a nonfiction writer. It just feels right to me.
2. And just as another Minnesotan–where are you from? Did I read right that you went to school at St. Olaf? None of this’s got to be included in the ‘actual’ ‘interview’ or anything, I’m just curious. Though, I’d be interested to hear what midwesternism means to you–I recently asked Ander Monson the same thing, and he ended up saying there was some tying-together characteristic of Great Lake states. I can’t tell/decide about any of it (I now live/teach in IA and it doesn’t feel remotely like MN to me). And as far as bio stuff, the big question is: why are the Twins not your team? (bonus points if you ever worked at the State Fair, just fyi).
I’m from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And I went to college in Minnesota, but at the U of M. No St. Olaf connection. About being Midwestern, I agree there are differences. I usually don’t even tell people I’m from the “Midwest,” because that conjures up images of Michigan, Ohio, or Illinois—all fine states, but they feel nothing at all like where I grew up. (I usually say “Great Plains,” or “The Prairie.”) I loved growing up in South Dakota. It gave me a solid base for the rest of my life—you feel like a big fish all the time, and I really felt like I’m from somewhere.
As for sports, I do enjoy the Twins and want them to win, but I don’t follow them closely enough to count as a real fan. I’d feel like I was posing, because following sports teams day by day just isn’t in my genes I get 95% of my sports knowledge from reading Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, on ESPN.com.
Oh, and I did work at the State Fair, if briefly. A good friend of mine, a math major, was running a booth and I took the bus out there and worked my shift 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. shift or whatever. He was an origami enthusiast, and had all this math- and Star Wars-themed origami lying around. As for the fair itself, I liked seeing things on a stick, but was a little horrified about the chocolate-chip cookie scene. There’s this stand where you buy an overflowing ice-cream pail/bucket of the cookies, and people had to eat at least a pound of them before they could even get the lid on. Thankfully, for them, the cookie stand stood right next to the fresh milk booth. (ed. note: I was absolutely one of those people that likely horrified SK, and I’m thrilled to soon again have the chance to eat my way through a bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies; they’re fantastic).
3. What’s the genesis of The Disappearing Spoon? Was this originally gonna be an obsessively close-look at some specific element, or some specific line of the elements, or the noble gasses or anything, and just kept going? Did you know from the start that it’d be the whole table? Was there any other chemistry or history book The Disappearing Spoon was in dialogue with—like, was there a book that’d come close to doing things right, in your mind, but had missed or swerved, last minute, and so you had to write yours (I’ve never written a book of nonfiction; I haven’t the faintest how they’re generated).
It was definitely obsessive, yes, but I always planned to incorporate the whole table. I really wanted to get at all the elements on there, especially the ones you never talk about in chemistry class. Plus, I knew I could find some great stories about well-known elements like carbon or gold. I’d originally planned for the book to be 118 chapters—one for each element! That didn’t work so well, so I ended up grouping them together by theme.
There are some great books about the periodic table and the elements out there: Nature’s Building Blocks; The Periodic Table: Its Story and Significance; Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. But nothing quite like what I wanted to do. I wanted a book that combined the best of all these—the breadth of Building Blocks, the details and story-telling qualities of Levi, etc. None of these books did anything wrong or swerved at the last minute, but I knew there was another book about the elements that could be written.
4. I don’t know how to ask this question. Maybe it’ just this: how the hell’d you cover so much ground? How do you know so much? It’d be one thing if this book was stuffier and more fixated/focused; as it is, it’s free ranging and wild, covers more miles than I’d've guessed it would’ve at its outset (no joke: this is one of my favorite books of this year; Joe Flood, another first-book guy, came out with The Fires, which is also nonfiction and also insanely smart and also incredible miles-covering). I meant it before: I don’t know how to ask this question, but the thing is this: there’s almost no way you could research something like this, right? Unless you looked things up by each individual element, then grouped them together later…it just seems intense. If there’s no question in here, I apologize.
I knew some of the stories ahead of time— in school I gravitated toward teachers who told us stories (sometimes at the expense of the time we spent learning science!), so I had a jump start in some sense. And there are a few personal stories (like mercury and titanium). But mostly I got the stories from research and fit them together by rearranging the material multiple times. There was a lot of waste—a lot of stories that didn’t make it. I also made a rule that I was going to stay away from “this is how much of this element there is, and here are its uses.” You can get that straight from any reference book. I really wanted something more lively, which forced me to look into literature or art, areas that I might not have looked into if I’d narrowed my focus. And it was easier knowing from the start that I had so much material to cover in 118 elements. If I’d set out to write something narrower, I might have felt overwhelmed. But knowing upfront there was going to be a lot of material made the flood of material feel more manageable.
5. Why DC, just out of curiosity? Do you love it there? What’s the best and worst part?
I was living in South Dakota after college, and knew I needed to get out of there if my writing was ever going to go anywhere, professionally or artistically. It was either D.C. or New York (the places with the highest concentration of writers), and D.C. seemed safer. New York seems a little overwhelming to me: Too many people around you at all times. And I could never get over not having real grocery stores just down the street. D.C. feels manageable. It’s not unlike the town I grew up in: The buildings are low, nothing’s too far away. The two downsides are (1) that few people stay in D.C. long term—everyone’s always out here for a few years, but with an eye on moving somewhere else, and (2) people in D.C. obsess over politics. That’s not a surprise exactly, but it’s not the I’m-generally-informed-and-have-strong-opinions fixation on politics you find in a lot of places. It’s more an obsession with strategies and messaging that gets a little tedious at times.
6. You’re in a unique position to be able to talk about the value and difference between science and art (not to sound too highfalutin or anything). Not to get to public-service-y, but you clearly have the chops to actually in-a-lab do science and yet, in a time of reading supposedly being threatened and books all but kaput, you’ve written a book instead. Is this a false dichotomy–is there, in fact, no BS in-the-sand line between science and writing, between science and art? Just curious; I can conceive of it from here, for me, as a writer of poetry and fiction, but not in a hard-science realm.
Ha, well, I have to say I was a bit of a flop in the science lab. I’m slightly clumsy (hence my dropping all those mercury thermometers as a kid). Even more than that, I got very annoyed when things didn’t work out in reality as neatly as they did on paper. You spend 90% of your time in labs, probably more, building equipment and fixing things that don’t work right, and it just killed me. I don’t have the temperament for it. That’s why I became a writer: Things do work out on paper! They have to.
There’s certainly a difference between science and art—they have different aims and ideals. If nothing else, their histories are vastly different. What Aristotle had to say on theater and poetry is still relevant, and we still read Homer. But no one can take Aristotle’s science seriously. You don’t have to denigrate him for it, and it’s certainly interesting historically, but it’s just not correct—despite what he said, women do not have fewer teeth than men.
Now, all that said, there’s no reason for antagonism between the sciences and the arts. That’s wasteful. And scientists themselves are human beings and they respond, on a human level, to the kinds of motivations and impulses that drive people to create and write. Scientists also construct narratives about their lives and work, even if they later have to root those ideas out when they present their work professionally. In sum, artists and scientists have different temperaments, but on a Venn diagram, those temperaments would overlap plenty, because they’re both of the same species, after all.
7. What’s the view out your window?
I live on a street where a lot of El Salvadoran businesses are located. I guess this is their pocket of the city. I can see a grocery store, a takeout place, and always some people hanging out on the stoop across the street.