Sam Kean : Hachette Speakers Bureau

Sam Kean

Science Raconteur

Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and is now a writer in Washington, D.C. He's the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb, and his stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, Air & Space/Smithsonian, Psychology Today and New Scientist. Both books were also named Amazon top-five science books of the year. The Disappearing Spoon was a runner-up for the Royal Society of London's book of the year for 2010, and The Violinist's Thumb was nominated for the 2013 PEN/Wilson award for literary science writing. He and his work have also been featured on NPR's Radiolab, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air.

His newest book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery, will be released in May.

Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could only marvel at the transformations that took place afterward, altering victims' personalities. An injury to one section can leave a person unable to recognize loved ones; some brain trauma can even make you a pathological gambler, pedophile, or liar. But a few scientists realized that these injuries were an opportunity for studying brain function at its extremes. With lucid explanations and incisive wit, Kean explains the brain's secret passageways while recounting forgotten stories of common people whose struggles, resiliency, and deep humanity made modern neuroscience possible.

The Disappearing Spoon tells the story of The Periodic Table, one of man's crowning scientific achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in the book and Kean’s presentations follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

Audiences learn that Marie Curie used to provoke jealousy in colleagues' wives when she'd invite them into closets to see her glow-in-the-dark experiments. And that Lewis and Clark swallowed mercury capsules across the country and their campsites are still detectable by the poison in the ground. Why did Gandhi hate iodine? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium? And why did tellurium lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

In The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, And Genius, As Written By Our Genetic Code Kean tells the story of DNA. DNA offers a powerful tool for rooting through our past; biology has become history by other means. And unraveling the genetic code hasn’t always been easy—from its earliest days, the field of genetics has been rife with infighting, backstabbing, and controversial theories—but scientists can now finally read the astounding stories inscribed in our DNA. In truth, we’ve been carrying these stories with us in our cells forever, grand sagas of where we came from and how we evolved from the primordial muck into the most dominant species the planet has known.

The Violinist’s Thumb starts in the remote microbial past, moves on to our animal ancestries, lingers over primates and hominid competitors like Neanderthals, and culminates with the emergence of modern, cultured human beings with flowery language and hypertrophied brains, as it considers the uncertainties that remain in the future, especially the question of how this grand human experiment of uprooting everything there is to know about DNA will turn out.

Kean has given talks in more than twenty states and four different countries, and his unique take on science has made him a consistently popular speaker at museums, colleges, libraries, science conferences, literary festivals, and other events – even a “science cabaret.”

Interested in booking Sam Kean to speak at your next event?

Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau.


  • The Violinist’s Thumb: Hidden Stories Buried in Our Genes and DNA
  • The Disappearing Spoon: The Wonders of the Periodic Table
  • Popularizing Science
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

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