Mark Twain And Science: It's Complicated

Did you know Mark Twain tried his hand at science fiction? In the book The Disappearing Spoon, author Sam Kean writes about Twain's prescient story "Sold to Satan." In the story, Satan’s problems stem, in part, from the fact that he is made entirely of the newly discovered radioactive element radium.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, Flora Lichtman, our digital media editor, is here. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. What have you got for our Pick of the Week this week?

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira. Tough act to follow, Carl Sagan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: He was a tough act, and we really miss him today. But I - how prophetic he was in talking about exactly what NASA said they were going to do this week.

LICHTMAN: Amazing.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Well, today, our video is actually about another inspiring communicator but with maybe a less well-known relationship with science. We have a story right out of Sam Kean's book, "The Disappearing Spoon," and it's about Mark Twain and his interest in technology and science. So Twain - a few things that I didn't know about Twain - one was that he liked technology, it seems, like he was an early adapter of the typewriter.

FLATOW: Hmm.

LICHTMAN: And he submitted the first manuscript, typewritten manuscript to any publisher with "Life on the Mississippi," that he had - actually, I think he had it dictated because he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: ...was a little bit curmudgeonly, as you probably know if you're familiar with Twain.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: But the - Remington was really excited about Twain being their, you know, showman for the typewriter, so they asked him, you know, can we use you in our advertisement?

And he wrote back this letter, and this is out of the book, "The Disappearing Spoon." So this is what Twain writes.

(Reading) Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the typewriter for the reason that I never could write a letter without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, everything, et cetera, et cetera. I don't like to write letters, and so I don't want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It was not well-accepted, the typewriter, when it first came out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Apparently, it's a little bit annoying for Mark Twain.

FLATOW: Stay away from...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Absolutely.

LICHTMAN: So this week, our Video Pick was put together by Katherine Wells, our science and arts producer. And she brings life to one of these stories through animation. So the story she chooses is not exactly about the typewriter. It's about a science fiction piece that you probably haven't heard of.

FLATOW: Mark Twain?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, Mark Twain.

FLATOW: Science fiction?

LICHTMAN: He dabbled in it apparently.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: And this story...

FLATOW: Edgar Allan Poe, beware.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Mark Twain is on the loose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: This is a - I mean, the way Sam Kean describes it is not his sharpest writing. It is a little bit kind of a funny story, but it's worth watching because it includes - look at all the things it includes, radium, hot toddies, selling your soul to Satan. I mean, this is...

FLATOW: Hot stuff.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it's hot stuff.

FLATOW: And so we - and our Video Pick of the Week, it's up on our website at sciencefriday.com, up there in the left hand video panel, we have an animation...

LICHTMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: ...that was made?

LICHTMAN: Katherine put together this animated version, so you can see Twain sort of come to life. And also Satan and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: He's a great story - I once visited his house in Connecticut. You know, ee lived in Connecticut for...

LICHTMAN: I don't know.

FLATOW: ...come from Yale, you must know where - maybe you don't.

LICHTMAN: I come from the Mississippi, where - I grew up in St. Louis, so I have other...

FLATOW: There you go.

LICHTMAN: ...relationships with Twain.

FLATOW: Well, he actually - I saw in his house, he had one of the first telephones also, besides having one of the first typewriters.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it seems like he, you know, he, despite his sort of - his curmudgeonliness, really did appreciate technology. In fact, there's a funny story about Twain and the telephone, where he - one of his great annoyances is hearing people talk on the phone. It's sort of like when you're on a bus and you hear a cell phone conversation...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...and you get annoyed.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

LICHTMAN: Well, Twain writes about how this was frustrating even then, in the land without cell phones. So you can just imagine what his life would be like today if he had to deal with...

FLATOW: Yeah. And then how loud you had to shout into those old phones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Maybe that was part of that.

FLATOW: All right, Flora. Thank you very much. For our Video Pick of the Week, it's Mark Twain and his - what's the name?

LICHTMAN: His complicated relationship with technology and science.

FLATOW: With technology. Up there. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks.

FLATOW: It's up there on our SCIENCE FRIDAY Video Pick of the Week. Just surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com. We have dozens of our videos up there for you. And we hope you enjoy this one.

That's about all the time we have for today. We had help from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. And then also if you go look at the Video Pick of the Week, you can download an iPhone app that will let you take that video and other audio Podcasts with you. Also you can subscribe and become a member of our sciencefriday.com family there. Also on Facebook. Go to our official SCIENCE FRIDAY Facebook page and join the thousands of other Facebook SCIENCE FRIDAY members.

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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