The Icepick Surgeon

Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science


By Sam Kean

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From a New York Times bestselling author comes the gripping, untold history of science's darkest secrets, "a fascinating book [that] deserves a wide audience" (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Science is a force for good in the world—at least usually. But sometimes, when obsession gets the better of scientists, they twist a noble pursuit into something sinister. Under this spell, knowledge isn’t everything, it’s the only thing—no matter the cost. Bestselling author Sam Kean tells the true story of what happens when unfettered ambition pushes otherwise rational men and women to cross the line in the name of science, trampling ethical boundaries and often committing crimes in the process.

The Icepick Surgeon masterfully guides the reader across two thousand years of history, beginning with Cleopatra’s dark deeds in ancient Egypt. The book reveals the origins of much of modern science in the transatlantic slave trade of the 1700s, as well as Thomas Edison’s mercenary support of the electric chair and the warped logic of the spies who infiltrated the Manhattan Project. But the sins of science aren’t all safely buried in the past. Many of them, Kean reminds us, still affect us today. We can draw direct lines from the medical abuses of Tuskegee and Nazi Germany to current vaccine hesitancy, and connect icepick lobotomies from the 1950s to the contemporary failings of mental-health care. Kean even takes us into the future, when advanced computers and genetic engineering could unleash whole new ways to do one another wrong.

Unflinching, and exhilarating to the last page, The Icepick Surgeon fuses the drama of scientific discovery with the illicit thrill of a true-crime tale. With his trademark wit and precision, Kean shows that, while science has done more good than harm in the world, rogue scientists do exist, and when we sacrifice morals for progress, we often end up with neither.




According to legend, the first unethical science experiment in history was designed by none other than Cleopatra.

At some point during her reign (51 to 30 BCE), a question arose among Egyptian scholars: when can you first tell whether babies are male or female in the womb? No one knew, so Cleopatra enlisted some maidservants in a fiendish plan.

This wasn’t the queen’s first foray into medical science. According to ancient sources—and modern historians back this up—Cleopatra took a lively interest in the work of her court physicians. She also invented a dubious cure for baldness—a paste of scorched mice and burnt horse’s teeth, which was blended with bear grease, deer marrow, reed bark, and honey and massaged into the scalp “until it sprouted.” More ominously, the Greek historian Plutarch reported that Cleopatra experimented on prisoners with poisons. She started with tinctures and chemicals—probably derived from plants—and graduated to venomous animals. (She even pitted different venomous beasts against each other in combat, fascinated to see who’d win.) This knowledge came in handy when Cleopatra ended her own life by letting an asp bite her breast, which she’d observed to be a relatively painless death.

As bad as poisoning prisoners seems, her experiment with fetuses surpassed that in depravity. We don’t know the source of Cleopatra’s obsession here—why she cared about the answer so much. But whenever one of her maidservants was sentenced to death (an apparently common occurrence), the queen ran her through the same procedure. First, in case she was already pregnant, she forced the maid to swallow one of the noxious substances she knew about, a “destructive serum” that purged the womb. With the slate now clean, Cleopatra had a manservant forcibly impregnate the maid. Finally, at some predetermined time later, she had the maid’s belly torn open, and the fetus inside fished out. Accounts differ on the results, but Cleopatra could reportedly distinguish males from females by day 41 after conception—thus proving that sexual differentiation began early. All in all, she considered the experiment a success.

Now, the only historical mentions of this horror come from the Talmud, and on the face of it, the accounts are suspect. Cleopatra had scores of enemies who spread propaganda about her, and it’s hard to think of a story that would demonize her more effectively than this. Furthermore, according to what doctors now know, the results don’t make sense. Six weeks after conception, fetuses have eyes and a nose and little finger nubs, but they’re only a half-inch long and don’t have genitals—making it impossible to distinguish males from females. (Genitals form during week nine, when the fetus is two inches long.) So even laying aside the propaganda, it’s doubtful whether Cleopatra performed this experiment.

Legend or not, however, many generations of people believed this story—which says something important. Cleopatra was powerful and hated, and the ghastly vividness of the tale gripped people’s imaginations. We expect tyrants to do horrifying things. But even beyond that, something else about the account rang true. There was an archetype lurking there, something deep and scary that was recognizable even back then—a person who takes things too far and lets their obsessions get the best of them. What we now call a mad scientist.

The madness of a mad scientist is a peculiar one. They’re not muttering gibberish or buttonholing you about loony conspiracies. To the contrary, they think quite logically. Here, Cleopatra experimented only on maidservants sentenced to death. If they were going to die anyway, she apparently reasoned, why not have them serve some useful purpose in the meantime? This decided, she made them take an abortifacient, to ensure that any prior pregnancies didn’t confound her results. She then recorded the exact date of the rape-insemination, to nail down her answer to the day. If we judge this solely as an experiment, Cleopatra did everything right.

Judged by every other standard, of course, Cleopatra did nothing right. She grew so obsessed, so blinkered, that she abandoned all notions of decency and compassion—ignoring the gore and the shrieks of pain, pushing ahead no matter the human cost. No, what makes mad scientists mad isn’t their lack of logic or reason or scientific acumen. It’s that they do science too well, to the exclusion of their humanity.


In our society, scientists are the good guys—usually. They’re cool and clever, rational and clear-headed, calmly dissecting the world around us. But as the story of Cleopatra shows, sometimes obsession grips them. They turn things inside out and twist what’s normally a noble pursuit into something dark. Under this spell, knowledge isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.

This book explores what pushes men and women to cross the line and commit crimes and misdeeds in the name of science. Each chapter is devoted to a different transgression—fraud, murder, sabotage, espionage, grave-robbing, and more: a comprehensive tour of the criminal arts. Admittedly, some of these stories are dastardly fun—who doesn’t enjoy a good pirate yarn, or a juicy tale of revenge? Others, however, still leave us squirming centuries later. And while some of these incidents were splashed across the headlines of every tabloid in their day, many have been overlooked in history or receded with the fog of time, despite their sensational nature. This book resurrects these stories, and dissects what drove people to break the ultimate taboos.

These tales also have surprising things to say about how science works. We all know how discovery usually happens. Someone observes a curious event in nature, or gets a light-bulb idea into how some process or particle behaves. Then they test their hypothesis by running experiments or heading out into the field. If they’re lucky, things go smoothly (ha). More often, frustrations pile up: experiments flop, funding gets yanked, fossilized colleagues refuse to accept new results. Finally, after much persistence, the evidence is too overwhelming to ignore, and the opposition thaws. The scientist returns from the intellectual wilderness, hailed as brilliant. The world at large benefits with a new medical treatment or high-tech material, or maybe even insight into where life comes from or the fate of the cosmos.

It takes a certain type of person to endure this gauntlet, someone patient and self-sacrificing. That’s why our society has traditionally revered scientists as heroes. But science is more than a string of isolated eurekas. Like much of the rest of society, science has faced a moral reckoning recently, and understanding what good and evil look like in science—and the path from one to the other—is more vital than ever. Science has its own sins to answer for.

Even more surprising is the realization that unethical science is often ipso facto bad science—that morally dubious research is often scientifically dubious as well. At a glance, that might sound strange. After all, people often argue that knowledge is neither good nor bad; only human application makes it so. But science is also a communal activity—its results need to be checked, verified, and accepted by other people. Humans are baked right into the process, and as story after story in this book shows, science that ignores human concerns or tramples human rights consistently falls short of what it could be. At best, such work disrupts the scientific community and squanders time and energy on strife; at worst, it undermines the cultural and political freedoms necessary for science to take place. Harming and betraying people harms and betrays science in turn.

That’s why these stories are of more than just academic or biographical interest. Only rarely do scientific villains emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. In most cases, morals erode slowly; people break bad step by painful step. By understanding what these scientists were doing, and why they thought themselves justified, we can spot the same dubious reasoning in modern research and maybe even prevent problems from arising. Indeed, dissecting depraved deeds provides an opportunity to learn how to short-circuit bad impulses and redirect people toward better ends.

Along those same lines, many stories here plumb the psychological motivations behind these warped deeds. What are scientifically minded criminals like? How do they differ from run-of-the-mill criminals? And how does their intelligence and advanced knowledge of the world aid and abet their wrongdoing? Chapter four, for instance, examines a sensational murder at Harvard, where a medical professor used his knowledge of anatomy to dispatch and dismember a university trustee. (He thereby became the second Harvard alum in history to be executed for a crime. In a later chapter, we’ll meet the man who was nearly number three.) Many people just assume that intelligent folks are more enlightened and moral; if anything, the evidence runs the other way.

Finally, how do scientists justify their sins to themselves and others? Psychologists have actually identified several tricks that researchers use to rationalize their deeds and minimize their guilt—a primer on Why Good Scientists Do Bad Things. For one, scientists are more likely to trample ethical boundaries when they feel excessive pressure to reach their goals. Scientific scoundrels also employ euphemisms to mask their deeds, even to themselves. Or they perform a complex mental arithmetic, whereby the good they’ve done in the past somehow “cancels out” the harm they’re causing now.

Scientists seem especially prone to tunnel vision. It’s no secret that science rewards intense focus, and tunnel vision is a corollary of that focus. When immersed in their research, some people can’t see beyond it, and they subsume everything in their lives to the pursuit of their goals, ethics included. In these cases, the morality or immorality of a research project might never occur to them. Chapter two recounts how many pioneering European scientists in the 1600s and 1700s—including giants like Isaac Newton and Carl Linnaeus— piggybacked on the transatlantic slave trade to gather facts and collect specimens from far-flung places. Yet few of them ever questioned their involvement in slavery, as long as the data kept flowing.

In still other cases, ethics get inverted. Compared to, say, politics, science seems pure. Just think of all the miseries science has liberated us from, all those life-saving medicines and labor-saving technologies. Scientists are justly proud of this record. But it’s all too easy for some to fall into the trap that Science = Good, period. And in this worldview, anything that furthers scientific research must therefore be positive as well. Science becomes its own end, its own moral justification. Similarly, scientists with delusions of grandeur often fall for the means-end fallacy. They convince themselves that their research will usher in a scientific utopia, and that the bliss of that utopia will supersede, by many orders of magnitude, any suffering they’re causing in the short term. Chapter five shows how Thomas Edison fell into this trap and tortured dogs and horses with electricity in order to prove the superiority of his preferred system of generating current. Even worse, chapter seven shows how research into eliminating sexually transmitted diseases has occasionally involved giving people syphilis or gonorrhea, in order to study them. In both cases, the reasoning was clear: just gotta crack a few more eggs. But when we sacrifice morals for scientific progress, we often end up with neither.

Beyond rationalizations, there’s also the question of what makes scientific crimes unique. When regular people transgress, they do so for money or power or something grubby. Only scientists go rogue for data—to augment our understanding of the world. To be sure, many of the crimes detailed here are complex and have multiple motives; human beings are messy. Above all, however, these crimes spring from a Faustian drive for knowledge. For example, because of societal taboos against dissecting human bodies, many anatomists in the 1800s began paying “resurrectionists” to rob graves for them. Donning a black hat was the only way to get the knowledge they coveted. Some anatomists even robbed graves themselves, or accepted corpses from murderers. They grew so obsessed with their research that nothing else mattered to them, and their humanity got corrupted in the process.

These stories aren’t just macabre antiques, either, something to dust off and scare students with—modern science is still reckoning with the fallout. Take the slavery-based research above. Many specimens collected via the slave trade became the nucleus of now-famous museums and remain on the shelves today. These museums wouldn’t exist without slavery, which means that science and slavery are still intertwined centuries later. Or consider the experiments that Nazi doctors ran on prisoners during World War II. They tossed people into vats of ice water, for instance, to study hypothermia. It was barbarous work, and often crippled or killed the victims. But in some cases, it’s the only real data we have, even today, on how to revive people in extremis. So what, ethically, should we do? Turn our heads, or use the data? Which outcome best honors the victims? Evil can roil a scientific field long after the perpetrators have died.

Beyond mining the past, this book contains some stories set in modern times, within the memories of people alive today. It also contains an appendix that looks to the fascinating future of crime. What dark deeds will scientists perpetrate in centuries to come? In some cases, like the crimes that will emerge when we colonize Mars and other planets, we can anticipate what will happen by looking at crimes on polar expeditions, where the bleak landscapes and sheer struggle to survive drove people mad. In other cases, there’s really no precedent. What new crimes can we expect when we all have programmable robot companions in our homes, or when cheap, ubiquitous genetic engineering floods the world?

Overall, this book fuses the drama of scientific discovery with the illicit thrill of true-crime tales. The stories range from the dawn of science in the 1600s to the high-tech felonies of tomorrow, and they cover all corners of the globe. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all fallen into the rabbit hole of obsession before, or bent the rules in pursuit of something we coveted. But few of us have been as thoroughly corrupted as the rogues in Icepick Surgeon. We tend to think of science as progressive, a force for good in the world. And it usually is. Usually.



As the judge banged the gavel, William Dampier hung his head in disgrace. One of the most celebrated scientists of his age was now a convicted felon.

It was June 1702, and because this was a naval trial, the court had convened on the deck of a ship, exposed to the salty air. Everyone knew that most of the charges against Dampier had no chance of sticking. The murder claim was flimsy, and the accusations of being an incompetent navigator were laughable: he was the best navigator alive, a worldwide expert on winds, currents, and weather. But as the trial progressed, Dampier—who had long, limp hair and a hangdog look, with baggy eyes—sensed that the court was determined to punish him somehow, for something. And so it was: The judges found him guilty of thrashing his lieutenant with a cane on a recent voyage, and declared him “not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of Her Majesty’s ships.” He was fined three years’ pay and dismissed from the navy.

Dampier staggered off the ship embittered and broken. How had he been reduced to this? He was the greatest naturalist of his day—so much so that Charles Darwin later counted himself a disciple. Dampier’s sensational travelogues would also go on to influence Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. No matter what he accomplished, however, William Dampier would always be guilty of one thing in the eyes of the Establishment. He was a brilliant scientist and navigator, no question. But for most of his adult life, he’d also been a pirate.

Given two things—his poverty and his obsession with biology—Dampier’s descent into piracy was probably inevitable. He took to sea after being orphaned at age fourteen, visiting Java and Newfoundland before an unhappy stint in the navy. He eventually sailed to the Caribbean in April 1674 at age twenty-two. After some bouncing around, he settled in the Bay of Campeche in eastern Mexico and made his living cutting logwood, a thick tree whose inner pulp made a brilliant scarlet dye. Dampier later described his fellow loggers as a motley bunch, disposed to “carousing and firing off Guns 3 or 4 days together… [T]hey could never settle themselves under any Civil Government, but continued in their Wickedness.” Though he probably caroused himself, Dampier also took long nature hikes in Campeche and was thrilled to see creatures he’d heard about before only in tall tales—porcupines and sloths, hummingbirds and armadillos. For someone who loved natural history, it was paradise.

His troubles started in June 1676, on one of those gorgeous early-summer days when it’s almost a privilege to work outdoors. But while the other loggers basked in the sunshine, Dampier noticed that the wind was shifting directions oddly: it “whiffled about to the south, and back again to the east.” Then the loggers noticed a mass of frigate birds overhead. These birds often accompanied ships from sea to shore, so most of the crew took this as a good omen; maybe supplies were coming. Dampier, however, frowned. The flock was Hitchcockian in its size and intensity, as if the birds were fleeing something. Most eerie of all was the local creek. Floods were a fact of life in Campeche; men often stepped directly from their beds into a pool of swamp water in the mornings. But that day the main creek started withdrawing mysteriously, as if sucked by a giant straw, until it was nearly dry in the middle.

The pirate-biologist William Dampier was a big influence on Charles Darwin, as well as a rogue and a scallywag. Painting by Thomas Murray. (More pictures are available, for all chapters, at samkean .com/books/the-icepick-surgeon/extras/photos.)

Two days after these auguries, a bank of demon-black clouds rolled in and unleashed hell. None of the loggers had ever imagined a storm of such intensity. The rain stung them like hornets, blinding them, and the wind slapped down their huts one by one, until a single shelter remained. The men staggered through the mud toward it, shouting to be heard, and scrambled to shore up this last refuge with wooden posts and ropes lashed to tree stumps. It barely survived. Soaking and shivering, they then huddled inside for hours—and emerged into an alien world. The empty creek had more than filled back up, flooding the land around them. Trees were strewn everywhere, their roots forming impenetrable thickets. Dampier and a few other loggers managed to row their last surviving canoe over to the bay and found a shoal of dead fish floating upside down. Of the eight ships anchored in the bay hours earlier, all but one had been swept to sea. The loggers begged food from the crew of the surviving ship, “but found very cold entertainment,” Dampier remembered. “For we could neither get Bread nor Punch, nor so much as a Dram of Rum.”

Dampier’s cinematic description of this storm was the first meteorologically detailed account of a hurricane, and it kicked off a lifelong preoccupation with wind and weather. More immediately, the storm rerouted the entire course of his life. All his logging equipment—axes, saws, machetes—had been washed away. He had no money and, without tools, no prospect of making any. As a result, he later wrote, “I was forced to range about to seek a subsistence.” This was a euphemism. “Ranging about” meant becoming a buccaneer.

Buccaneers were a distinct class of pirates1 then. Some pirates were so-called privateers, who had tacit permission from their home governments to harass enemy ships. English privateers usually focused on Spanish ships, and many an English home in the Caribbean was furnished with silks, pewters, and sleek carved chairs originally bound for Barcelona or Madrid. Privateering, then, was tolerated if not respectable. Buccaneers had no permission to raid anyone. They were simple criminals, and their home governments scorned them as much as their enemies did. The buccaneering crew Dampier joined stood even lower than most, because instead of raiding ships full of luxuries, they stormed pathetic little coastal camps, stealing from folks no better off than themselves.

We don’t know what exactly Dampier did on these raids because he skimmed over most of the details in his journals, perhaps out of embarrassment. He also had a habit of getting distracted by natural history. Describing an assault on Vera Cruz, for instance, he dispatches with the death of a dozen companions in a few words, and skates right past the fact that the raid was a bust: the townsfolk had fled with their valuables at the first sign of pirates, leaving the town devoid of loot. Instead, Dampier highlights the dozens of caged parrots left behind, which he and others packed onboard his ship like legitimate treasure. They “were yellow and red,” he gushed, “very coarsely mixed, and they would prate very prettily.” No plunder, no matter—parrots were prize enough for him.

Dampier eventually returned to England in August 1678 and entered into a mysterious marriage with a woman named Judith, a lady-in-waiting to a duchess. Trying to go straight, he used her dowry to purchase some goods and sailed to the Caribbean again in January 1679 to trade them, promising his bride he’d return within a year. He broke that vow. A few months after arriving, he accompanied some sailors to Nicaragua on a trading trip, and the crew made a pit stop at a city in Jamaica that was a favorite haunt of lowlifes. Dampier later claimed to be shocked—shocked!—when the crew decided to throw their lot in with some pirates there and go buccaneering instead. In truth, some historians believe that Dampier knew full well that he’d meet pirates in Jamaica, and went there for the explicit purpose of returning to the high seas.

He did so for a few reasons. One, like every other person in history, Dampier longed to be rich, and there was always the chance that his band of buccaneers would stumble across a Spanish galleon groaning with doubloons and make their fortunes. But even deeper than that, Dampier couldn’t shake his memories of Campeche—the rambles through the woods, the exotic flora and fauna, the whole days lost to nature. Pirating was the only means he had to recapture that feeling. To be sure, pirating was also a dirty business, rife with assaults and murders. Over the years Dampier saw priests being stabbed, prisoners tossed overboard, and native Indians picked off with rifles and tortured for intelligence. There’s no reason to think Dampier stood aloof or was squeamish about his involvement. But Campeche had awakened a passion for natural history that was almost erotic in its intensity, and no matter how much he regretted buccaneering sometimes, his lust for new shores, new skies, new plants and animals, proved too strong. As he recalled, he was “well enough satisfied” wherever he ended up, “knowing that the farther we went, the more Knowledge and Experience I should get, which was the main Thing that I regarded.”

Dampier joined the Jamaica pirates as a navigator, and the subsequent voyage was a rambling adventure, involving several different crews and ships; it’s impossible to summarize neatly. They started off raiding cities in Panama, then sailed up to Virginia, where Dampier was arrested for unknown reasons; he refers to the incident only as some “troubles.” Then it was over to the Pacific coast of South America, including the Galápagos.

Every so often the crew made a decent score: gems, bolts of silk, a stock of cinnamon or musk. Once they seized eight tons of marmalade. Much more commonly a galleon would give them the slip on the open seas and they’d slink off to try another port. Or they’d endure a long and futile siege of a coastal town, only to learn that the citizens had snuck out their treasures under the pirates’ noses, leaving the buccaneers empty-handed.

Dampier and his crew nearly drowned during a fierce storm on their way to Indonesia. (Engraving by Caspar Luiken.)

Instead of making a fortune in South America, “we met with little… besides fatigues, hardships and loss,” Dampier recalled. They sometimes had to drink “copperish or aluminous” water from “stinking holes of rocks,” and they spent many a night outdoors with nothing but “the cold ground for our bedding and the spangled firmament for our covering.” On one occasion, during a storm so violent that the men didn’t want to risk raising the sails, Dampier and another comrade had to scramble up the rigging and hold their overcoats open to steer the ship bodily.

Hoping for better luck, the crew eventually struck out for Guam, a daunting trip of more than seven thousand blank miles. They staggered ashore fifty-one days later, nearly starved. Had things gone on much longer, Dampier later learned, the crew was plotting to murder and eat the captain and the officers, including him. (The captain took this news in remarkably good humor. He turned to his navigator and laughed, “Ah, Dampier, you would have but made them a poor meal!” “For I,” Dampier explained, “was as lean as the captain was lusty and fleshy.”) From Guam, the crew made excursions to China and Vietnam, and Dampier later became the first Englishman to set foot on Australia. In addition to studying flora and fauna in each spot, Dampier took advantage of his time on the open sea to study winds and currents, developing into a first-class navigator. Even those who despised Dampier had to admit that he had a near supernatural ability to judge where land lay beyond the horizon by reading the winds and currents.


  • "Kean is a gifted raconteur… [in The Icepick Surgeon] you’ll find a series of gripping stories about evil scientific deeds, corrupt rivalries and skulduggery—with real skulls."—John Schwartz, New York Times Book Review
  • “Delightful, highly readable… Kean takes his readers on an engrossing — and sometimes horrifying — historical tour of the many ways the search for knowledge can go wrong… Written with the flair of a beach thriller and the thoughtfulness of philosophy, the pages explode with a wealth of information and juicy details, all held together with virtuoso storytelling.”—Lucinda Robb, Washington Post
  • The Icepick Surgeon has its gems of phraseology… We cringe at the ghastly work of grave robbers and surgeons in blood-stiff aprons, and laugh at the comical fights among paleontologists bent on destroying one another’s careers… As each chapter compounds, it becomes more difficult to condemn and smirk without seeing the systemic ways that early sins have crept into the heart of science and medicine today… It takes honesty and integrity to make good science; we ignore this at our peril.”—Brandy Schillace, Wall Street Journal
  • “Fascinating… Imagine a novel full of true crime thrillers with just one twist—every crime in it was committed in the name of science. This is the premise of the new book, The Icepick Surgeon… From Cleopatra to Thomas Edison, scientists have been responsible for some dastardly crimes throughout history.”—Ira Flatow, NPR Science Friday
  • “Vivid… [The Icepick Surgeon] serves as an important reminder that science is ever a human enterprise… Kean’s talent for spinning a delightful tale shines.”—Deborah Blum, Science
  • "The title alone is enough to make one buy this book! Kean is a funny and facile writer who proves that facts are indeed stranger than fiction. His tales of slavery, graverobbing, experiments, killing, and mayhem are not for the squeamish. But I dare you to put the book down once you start it."—Lawrence De Maria, Washington Independent Review of Books
  • “Catalogs some of the greatest ethical lapses done in the name of science… The Icepick Surgeon probably raises more questions than it answers. But that’s a hallmark of good experiments—as well as good books about science and scientists.”—Diana Gitig, Ars Technica
  • “Entertaining and chilling... Expert at spinning historical science yarns… Kean excels at conveying each scientist’s slide into corruption—one so gradual that, like the fabled boiling frog, they scarcely noticed they were in hot water.”—Elizabeth Svoboda, Undark
  • “Fascinating… Kean argues convincingly that what makes his subjects unique in the annals of crime is that they did wrong ‘for data—to augment our understanding of the world.’ This engrossing look at crimes often committed by otherwise moral people deserves a wide readership."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • “[A] witty, thought-provoking book... Kean is a powerful, exciting storyteller who deftly considers ethical questions within an engaging narrative.”—Library Journal (starred review)
  • “Kean [has a] gift for making science understandable. His writing style is conversational and witty—but he never forgets the real human costs of these crimes.”—Deborah Mason, Bookpage
  • “[An] interesting discussion of the meaning of true progress and its cost is a thoughtful look through history and into the future.”—Cassie Gutman, Bookriot
  • “Kean’s strength lies in his storytelling, and in the humane combination of humor and compassion toward the strange life histories he pieces together.”—Columbus Dispatch

On Sale
Jul 13, 2021
Page Count
368 pages

Sam Kean

About the Author

Sam Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bastard Brigade, Caesar's Last Breath (the Guardian's Science Book of the Year), The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, The Violinist's Thumb, and The Disappearing Spoon. He is also a two-time finalist for the PEN / E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. 

His work has appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and he has been featured on NPR's Radiolab, All Things Considered, Science Friday, and Fresh Air. His podcast, The Disappearing Spoon, debuted at #1 on the iTunes science charts. Kean lives in Washington DC.

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