Wednesday, June 30, 2010
What’s a novelist whose mind runs to the 18th century—A Case of Curiosities and The Grand Complication—to do when his nine-year-old son challenges him to pick a subject that’s “important”? In Allen Kurzweil’s case, after rejecting the Red Sox as a topic, he acquiesced to Max’s number two pick, “potato chips.” After all, the popular snack food had already crept into Kurzweil’s first two children’s books, Leon and the Spitting Image and Leon and the Champion Chip. In fact, it was during Kurzweil’s tour for the Leon books when he learned that educators just assumed that the experiments the teacher conducts in Champion Chip weren’t possible, that he decided to work with his son to create a science kit for kids and teachers based on chips: Potato Chip Science Book & Stuff (Workman, Sept.).
Author Kurzweil and his son, Max.To get started, says Kurzweil, “we transformed our basement into a research facility. Much to the consternation of my wife, it became a junk food paradise.” Kurzweil and Max taste-tested a variety of chips and then created experiments using them, as well as the containers—potato chip bags, lids, and tubes. Not every experiment, like the ant colony, made it into the finished kit. Some were rejected because they were too complicated to replicate or to obtain the materials. But the shrunken potato head, the pocket-sized propulsion pipe, and the CSI Detective Kit all made the cut.
While Kurzweil and Max researched the book, they faced a more difficult problem: how to manufacture the kit so that the book and all the other pieces would fit into a potato chip bag. Plus Kurzweil and Max wanted to make Potato Chip Science here in the U.S. with eco-friendly components, unlike other science kits, which are primarily produced in Asia. In fact the manufacturing issue was so knotty that the book was ready a full year before the rest of the kit, despite father and son putting in annual visits to SNAXPO, the trade show for snack food professionals, where Kurzweil and Max asked lots of manufacturing questions.
Max at age 10, conducting 'market research' for their idea.For Kurzweil, the manufacturing conundrum was one of the most pleasurable parts of the project because it enabled him, he says, to tap into a previously unknown desire to make things. His father was an industrial designer and inventor; his cousin Ray Kurzweil was called “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison” by Inc. magazine.
Kurzweil jokes that his address book now has almost as many names of snack food manufacturers as novelists and editors. In the end, Bryce Corporation, which won a Greener Package Award for its one-third compostable, polylactic acid Sun Chips bag, created the bag. Although the bag itself is not biodegradable, it and every piece of the packaging is repurposed for the experiments. Kurzweil sourced most of the components, although Max made a connection with a manufacturer in Rhode Island for the electrodes. With the exception of the sound chip and the clock, everything was sourced in the U.S.
Max at age 16, with the finished product.Despite the necessity—for the sake of research—of eating a lot of chips, Kurzweil, who is currently a fellow at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, was forced to cut back. The research threw his triglyceride count off the charts. Nor does he have a favorite chip. Like novels, he says, “I can’t see living with just one.” Max, who is now 16 and will be a junior at The Wheeler School in Providence, R.I., continues to munch at will.
As for Potato Chip Science, it proved to be a popular giveaway at this spring’s SNAXPO. It’s also been a hit with booksellers. After an initial print-run of 35,000 copies, Workman is planning to go back to press next week, according to senior publicist Oleg Lyubner. And that’s before Kurzweil embarks on a two-month book tour starting in mid-September at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He will also visit Nashville, St. Louis, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Phoenix.