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The Boy Who Loved Mercury

And Other True Stories of Life, Death and the Storytelling Science that Binds Them


By Kathy Floyd

The thermometer falls from the little brown-haired boy’s mouth, sending the thin glass tube falling to the floor. It shatters on impact and tiny spheres of shiny silver mercury scatter. The boy’s mom sucks in her breath. Another thermometer bites the dust. In the kitchen, she keeps a pill bottle of mercury, mercury from other thermometers. The boy smiles a tiny, satisfied smile, holding in his excitement. His mom didn’t have to see that smile. She knew. He’d done it on purpose.

A few years later, the brown-haired boy learns to play the clarinet. But his thumbs don’t look like the thumbs of the other clarinetists — all girls, by the way. His thumbs bend at different angles and sometimes get locked out of place. His fingers are long and double-jointed, not conducive to working the intricate valves, levers and blowholes on a clarinet. For six years he tries to make his fingers and thumbs conform but finally, he quits band, leaving the clarinet to the girls. Why are his thumbs so weird?

Now a high school senior, the brown-haired boy rolls his eyes behind Mrs. Mahoney’s back. She is not happy with her senior AP English class at O’Gorman High School. No one’s turned in a paper worth reading and Sam’s paper on AIDS research funding is no exception — sloppy in the details. But Mrs. Mahoney is a good English teacher so she goes back to the basics: sentence structure, introductions, conclusions, paragraph construction. Oh, how the seniors hated being treated like first graders.

Mrs. Mahoney would be proud today. Mom certainly is. Sam Kean, the brown-haired boy who loved mercury, grew up to become a bestselling author, touted by The New York Times and adored by Amazon’s readers. (Twice his books hit Amazon’s Top 5 science books of the year. Even his endnotes get raves.) He’s a teller of tales that explain the whys and hows behind the complicated building blocks of life — the periodic table, the genetic code, and in his most recent book, the human brain. On his Twitter account, he calls himself a “science raconteur” of “funny, spooky, bizarre, touching tales.” In each of his three books, he draws from personal experience: his quicksilver fascination with mercury, his wayward thumbs, his own sleep paralysis. Then he populates them with crazy interesting characters, from X-ray originator Wilhelm Röntgen to violinist Niccolo Paganini to railroad worker Phineas Gage. He hasn’t forgotten Mrs. Mahoney’s nit-picky rules of good structure and mechanics from high school English either. Sam puts the intricate stories of our brains, genes and chemistry into story form because he believes that’s how we understand best—when we read a story.

 

SAM KEAN’S THREE BOOKS were my constant companions through February and March. For much of that time, I was doing all my reading in my husband’s hospital room. The books helped me pass the time as we waited on doctors, nurses and test results, and as we prayed for answers about his condition. I loved the titles — they reminded me of the Nancy Drew mysteries that drew me to books in my childhood—only their length conjured up more peculiar situations than finding the secret of an old clock:

The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by our Genetic Code

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

Whew!

I dug in with his bestselling first book, The Disappearing Spoon. Sam turns the periodic table (yes, THAT periodic table) and its elements into characters with tales of mad scientists and metals and gases that don’t always behave as expected, like the story of Röntgen. Upon seeing the bones of his hand while working with a beam of light and barium-coated paper plates, Röntgen thought he had lost his mind. He locked himself in his lab for seven weeks until he was sure of what he had found. He won the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.

Sam does the same thing for the secrets hidden in our genetic code in The Violinist’s Thumb, his second book. What story of how a scientist almost mated humans with apes wouldn’t make genetics interesting?

More than telling stories that arouse a curiosity in sciences, Sam makes those complicated, technical subjects relatable.

I didn’t expect to relate personally to something in Sam’s latest book. In The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam uses stories to demonstrate how doctors and scientists have mapped and made discoveries about the brain by studying people with injuries or diseases. In the intro, Sam tells of his own mild case of sleep paralysis, a condition where sufferers partially awaken, but parts of the brain do not work together to tell the rest of the body to awaken or other parts of the brain to stop dreaming. The victims are trapped in a live dream.

In the middle of reading Dueling Neurosurgeons, my husband died. His death certificate says “sudden cardiac death” with pneumonia and congestive heart failure as underlying causes. With all that had happened, I began rereading Dueling Neurosurgeons before my interview with Sam in Washington, D.C. As I read about the brainstem controlling heart rate, breathing and other automatic body functions, I lost my breath. Puzzle pieces of my husband’s death snapped together in a flash in my own brain.

Mike had fallen putting up Christmas lights, not once but twice. He fell again taking lights down. All those times he hit the back of his head. A brainstem injury would explain so many inconsistencies in his health during his last few months on earth.

I would not have put these pieces together if I hadn’t been reading Sam’s book. A science book. Something written in a science book of all places helped me connect the dots, the cause of my husband’s death. After thinking about it, maybe it’s not that surprising.

Life is science. And so is death.

 

ON A SNOWY DAY IN MARCH, Sam wants to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History before its dinosaur exhibit, “Fossil Hall,” closes for a five-year renovation. Now 35, Sam dodges strollers and weaves through groups of children in the packed walkways to see the fossils and bones of things that died ages ago. Sam wears the hipster look well: an untucked button-down shirt, sneakers, an Abe Lincoln beard outlining his chin and jawline. But inside he’s old school. He prefers brick-and-mortar libraries to Google. He would rather mark up hard copies of documents with blue ink and highlighter than save information to a cloud.

Sam finds a bonus at the Smithsonian. The exhibit, “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code,” celebrates the 10-year anniversary of mapping the human genetic code, using models and displays about our genome — the strand of DNA that makes us who we are and the subject of The Violinist’s Thumb. Sam stops to look at three columns of sand that represent the size of an organism’s genome. The tallest column doesn’t belong to humans. Neither does the second tallest. Those belong to the amoeba and barley. The third column is little more than half the size of the amoeba’s column. That represents the human genome, of course. “Wow, would you look
at that,” Sam says, surprised that amoebas and barley have more genetic information than a human.

Sam grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the same house where his dad grew up. His dad, Gene, and his mom, Jean, met in college. Yes, his parents are named Gene and Jean Kean, a tidbit that caused young Sam much consternation growing up. Jean Kean says Sam’s favorite word was “why.” Even he realized he was an inquisitive child when he asked his mom why all his questions started with “why.” By the time he was 3 years old, Sam was reading Childcraft Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. The brightly colored Childcraft volumes with titles such as “Stories Fables” and “Brain Games” kept him entertained for hours as he read them over and over. As he grew, he couldn’t wait each month for the new Games magazine to come in the mail so he could work the word puzzles. Although he was a natural at math and science, his mom said he never wanted to be singled out for his intelligence.

In high school, Sam really did want to be a scientist. He chose to attend the University of Minnesota because of its strong science and engineering programs, and because he wanted to try life in the big city of Minneapolis. But three years into a physics degree, he realized the scientist life was not for him. He didn’t enjoy the uncertainty in experiments and all the background work such as control testing and maintenance and work on equipment. He enjoyed writing. He started crafting science stories for The Minnesota Daily, the school newspaper. Looking back, it made sense, but at the time it did not occur to him that he could make writing his livelihood. He didn’t drop physics. He just added an English major and graduated summa cum laude in 2002. He moved back home for more than a year until landing an internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch through the Association for the Advancement of Science, an assignment designed to teach young writers how to write science stories for a general newspaper audience.

Sam realized that to convey the important, but sometimes complicated, information in his scientific topics, he could be most clear when he told the information as a story. But not just a straightforward story. He wanted the people involved to have their say, to talk about their motives and their disappointments, and to tell about the times experiments went awry or when they had success. “I think you learn a lot more science than you would think just by learning about the stories,” Sam says.

Sam’s love of libraries took him to Washington. He earned his master’s degree in Library Science from The Catholic University of America in D.C. “I would have been happy working in a library if the writing hadn’t worked out,” Sam says over a salad at the Smithsonian’s cafe. “That would have been a good career. I love libraries. I love books. I always wonder what stories are in each book.”

Putting library love aside, Sam began writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in the nation’s capital, which led to a job at The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The jobs were good practice. Sam was writing every day. All the while, he was thinking of his professors in Minnesota and the backstories they would tell of the scientists who played major roles in the development of the periodic table and discovering the elements. Those stories brought the periodic table to life in a way that discussions of protons and neutrons did not.

But how do you pitch a book about the periodic table? Sam’s idea: a collection of stories about the elements, their uses, and the geniuses who worked with them — how molybdenum from a Colorado mine helped the Germans in World War I, how Jack Kilby built the first integrated circuit with germanium, and why Gandhi had a conscientious objection to iodine. Agent Rick Broadhead, who represents nonfiction authors ranging from Oprah Magazine columnists to military historians, bit. “Rick got it,” Sam says. “He knew no one had tried something like that before.”
In 2009, just as the magazine Sam was working for folded, his book proposal for The Disappearing Spoon was accepted. The book spent nine weeks on The New York Times bestseller list in 2010.

With one book under his belt, Sam started hunting for another big idea. While writing about genetics for magazines such as Slate and Mental Floss, he had begun keeping a file of odd and funny stories — one of them was about Niccolo Paganini, who had a thumb issue Sam could relate to.
Paganini was a 19th century Italian who changed the way the violin was played. Some claim Paganini could strike a thousand notes a minute with his nimble, double-jointed fingers and super-bendy thumbs. Sam and other theorists believe Paganini’s flexibility was due to a genetic disorder that inhibited his body’s ability to make collagen, which toughens the bone and gives cartilage rigidity. So, bendy thumbs — not good for clarinetists, but good for violinists.

Because DNA is, at its most basic, a sequence of chemicals that affects the body’s physiology, Sam could straddle the border of chemistry and biology in his writing. And as he found out with Paganini, some of those genetic traits lead to unexpected effects on artistic traits. Artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s short stature was more than likely caused by a genetic defect because his parents were first cousins. He was mocked for his size, leading him to alcohol and giving him a different perspective on his subjects.

Sam’s research turned up some wild stories (all true): If a certain Russian scientist had had his way, a woman and an orangutan named Tarzan would have become parents. One thing that made the book exciting to work on also proved to be a challenge. As Sam was writing, researchers were making discoveries about the genome, including the shocking news that Neanderthals bred with humans thousands of years ago. How could he leave out information like that? “It was fun to be on the cusp,” Sam says.

Because DNA continues to tease the brains of scientists, it seemed natural for Sam, the puzzle lover, to include a puzzle in the book. Harkening back to his days growing up slightly nerdy in Sioux Falls, he cooked up an acrostic puzzle with the first letters of each chapter, inviting readers to email him when they solved the riddle, or even if they didn’t. The Violinist’s Thumb, a New York Times bestseller, was a finalist for a 2013 PEN Literary Award. (Some of his fans think the judges made a mistake in not naming him the winner).

Last summer, Sam traveled to Africa and Egypt, visiting Cairo just before it became the center of violent protests over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. He and a friend roamed the pyramids in Egypt and camped under the stars and cooked out in Tanzania. He saw the Olduvai Gorge, where some of the earliest human remains were found. “It was incredible to be in the place where humans got their start, to see the kind of landscape and environment they were dealing with,” Sam says. “It was really touching to know we were in the cradle of human beings and to see where we came from.”

Sam relives his summer trip while walking through the Smithsonian. He points to the giraffe exhibit, where one nibbles at a thorny plant. Sam said he almost used one of those thorns as a toothpick but the safari guide told him it was a good thing he didn’t. The thorns could be toxic. As we see the desert fox display, Sam tells the story of nighttime in Tanzania and the guides warning him and his friend to wrap kerchiefs around their heads. Little desert foxes like hair. Sam’s kerchief wasn’t put on well and he awoke to a fox trying to rearrange his part. He’s amused by the fox’s antics but tells the story with relief that he still had hair.

Sam soon stops at the wildebeest exhibit. His voice softens as he tells of seeing huge herds of wildebeest on the Serengeti plain of Tanzania. Wildebeest in herds of thousands follow the rains in search of grass. Sam was awed by their numbers, awed by their beauty, but he knows their numbers are in decline. He wonders if that’s what it was like in America in the days when buffalo ruled the plains. He is the curious boy again, telling stories of quirky animals and wondering....

LAST SUMMER, I STOOD UNDER the blinking red light in Archer City with a group of writers on a quest to hone their craft in Larry McMurtry’s hometown. We drove out to McMurtry’s ranch on a gravel road lined with red dirt banks that sprouted cactus and scrub brush. At first I didn’t think I belonged — the class was not easy for me. You work through the pressure of reading your words aloud to writers such as Bill Marvel, Erik Calonius and Ron Powers, worrying about lyricism and rhythm. You know that the odds are slim that you will write something so powerful that it will take someone’s breath away, but you try anyway. Before our week was out, I felt more in tune with writing down thoughts and reading them aloud at my place at the table in The Spur Hotel. Those July days are a lifetime ago.

The tiny town of Charlie is near the Red River, about 45 miles north of Archer City. Iron oxide colors the river and the soil there, just as it colors the dirt in Archer City. My husband is buried in the Charlie Cemetery,
in the oxide-colored soil. On March 24, before I flew out to D.C. to meet Sam, I stopped at the cemetery to visit Mike. It was less than two weeks after his funeral and the day that would have been his 63rd birthday. Sprays of wilted flowers still covered the fresh, red mound of dirt.

I didn’t want to leave.

Making the trip to Washington was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I worked in Washington for eight months in 1991-92. Together Mike and I figured out the Metro, walked the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, and took in all the sights tourists are supposed to see. This was my first time back there since leaving in ’92. All I wanted to do was hide in the hotel, but after my last visit with Sam, I went to Pennsylvania Avenue. I had to consciously make myself take steps or else I would have just stood still, waiting for Mike, and let the world parade past me.

ONE OF THE REALTOR’S SELLING POINTS for Sam’s apartment in the Woodley Park area of D.C. was that he would be able to hear some
of the animals from the nearby National Zoo. Like the house Sam grew up in, books abound in his apartment. On one shelf sits a shadowbox his parents gave him when The Disappearing Spoon came out. It contains the book and a spoon in a test tube. This spoon is not made of cadmium, as
a disappearing spoon was; it’s Sam’s baby spoon. Between the spoon and the book is a small vial of mercury, mercury from the broken thermometers of his childhood. His parents made him a shadowbox when The Violinist’s Thumb came out, too. (It doesn’t have a thumb, but it does have Sam’s thumbprint in clay with his book and a miniature violin.) He wonders what his parents will do for Dueling Neurosurgeons.

In some ways, his new book was more of a challenge than his first two books. Sam is not a neuroscientist. He had to learn about the brain and its anatomy and physiology. In The Disappearing Spoon, he had difficulty in connecting the dots between all the elements and had to use more transitions, but in Dueling Neurosurgeons, the human brain is the central character. “It was more fun to do with a central character, even though that central character is the brain of people from kings to assassins,” Sam says.

He poured over history journals and read The Journal of Neuroscience. He learned about jousting for the chapter on France’s King Henri II. Dueling Neurosurgeons opens with Sam at his storytelling finest— recreating the jousting match and injury to the king that inspired the title of the book. Like The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam indulged his puzzle love. At the beginning of each chapter, he included a rebus, a word- picture puzzle, and again invited readers to email him their answers.

He felt obligated to write a chapter on Phineas Gage, the 19th century railroad worker whose brain was perforated by a 3-foot metal rod. Knowing the story is famous in neurocircles, Sam put his own stamp on Gage by writing about Gage’s life after the accident.

The chapter on memory may have been
the roughest for Sam, given the mounds of re- search to read: He studied stories from magazines such as Esquire and cases in technical journals from Australasian Psychiatry to Alcohol Research and Health. “I have a high tolerance for tedium in that I’m willing to spend a lot of time reading something that might only lead to one line in the story, but if it’s a good line, it’s worth it,” Sam says.

“Sam is a sponge for story,” says his editor John Parsley at New York’s Little, Brown and Company. “He lets himself be entertained by science and its history and every sentence of his books makes that clear. He has a great eye for the wild and wicked and wondrous stories science harbors in spades.”

Sam writes down all his material first, then goes back to rewrite. That’s the fun part for him — the rearranging and revising — and that’s where Sam’s appreciation for John grows. “John and I complement each other,” Sam says. “He’s good at the big picture. He keeps me on track.” He tries to write every day, whether it’s a book review for The Washington Post, or articles for Slate or Science. Then he’s ready to get back to book writing. That’s what he loves. Stories may be a break, then they’re done and over with. He can linger over a book.

Sam’s success as an author has led to a side
gig as a speaker. Out on the road, he may speak
to the federal wonks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology or guest at a Starbucks corporate meeting. Although he did have fun in high school with drama, being a more introverted writer type, he didn’t think he would enjoy that part as much as he does. “It’s nice to be out with people who have read your books,” Sam says. “It’s interesting to get the feedback and questions.”

His move back home after college provided fodder for one of the talks he now gives as
an successful author — lessons learned from pack living. In his family, you had to be clever to participate in the banter around the dinner table. That training has helped him as he looks for places to interject humor into the technical and usually serious world of science writing.

Even with the success of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam still is anxious about how Dueling Neurosurgeons, just released in May, will do. If the book got
to the right people, he knew it would do well. Who are the right people? His mom and dad, anyone’s mom and dad. The scientists he writes about, the writer writing about him. Anyone who wants to learn about the periodic table, the genetic code, or the secrets of our brain. Anyone eager for knowledge. These stories of how this thinking organism of ours works were not written for intellectuals only. If only eggheads read Dueling Neurosurgeons, or any science book for that matter, Sam’s gift of telling stories would be squandered. No understanding would be gained.

Sam didn’t become a white-lab-coat-wearing scientist. He’s not standing over Bunsen burners or beakers making scientific history. But he has figured out how to concoct thoughts and sequence words so that complex subjects be- come stories that bridge science and real life.

While writing Dueling Neurosurgeons and The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam learned that we’re not as in charge of our motivations and actions as we like to think. We do, or don’t do, things without being fully aware of why. In reality, the four lobes of our brain and our genes are working together to produce a reaction. Both genes and biological impulses guide our actions
and make us who we are. When we’re reading stories about Paganini or Phineas Gage, we’re not just reading a history lesson or a biology or science lesson. We’re learning about ourselves, about life and death.

Sam, the curious boy who loved mercury, grew into a man eager for knowledge. He doesn’t accidentally-on-purpose break thermometers anymore. Now when he’s curious about something, he haunts libraries, hunts down the answers, and tells a story.

Sometimes his stories leave you breathless.

 

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