Here’s a Fundamental Characteristic We All Share with Scientists

by Ted Sanders


When I set out to write The Keepers, I knew that I wanted to write a fantasy. But I wanted the fantastic elements of the story to have a real-world logic; I planned to present the “magic” as technology that operated near — or just beyond — the limits of human understanding. I wasn’t writing science fiction, but I was writing a fiction that had scientific underpinnings.

Since the series began, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about why I wanted these things. I’m certainly an advocate of science in the classical sense, a believer in expanding the frontiers of human knowledge. There’s been a lot of attention placed on science recently — on the importance of research, of facts, of getting closer to the bottom of things — and I wholeheartedly support these values.

But I’m also aware that science is a boring word for many people, even a nap-inducing word. And so maybe we need to shift the notion of what science is — shift it away from the laboratory and the lecture hall, away from the textbooks and the mathematical formulas. Because in reality, science is a much larger and more commonplace endeavor than we typically realize, a much more basic undertaking.

The truth is, we are all scientists.

Being a scientist simply means asking questions about the world and trying to find out the answers. When I go on tour for The Keepers, I talk to kids around the country about all the ways they engage scientifically with the world, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. The scientific method (i.e., notice a thing, question the thing, guess at an answer, test that answer) is a recipe we all follow, dozens of times a day. My own youngest son, now just a year old, goes through the process almost nonstop: “What is that object? Let me put it in my mouth and see what I find out.”

Most of what we, as individuals, know about our world isn’t explicitly taught to us; instead we have experiences, and we discover knowledge for ourselves — what a flower smells like, what the word mommy means, what too much sun does to our skin, which type of snow makes the best snowball. And all of these discoveries, the millions that come together to make us uniquely human, are driven by one thing: curiosity.

Scientific progress owes its advances to curiosity. That’s plain. But curiosity also drives nearly every aspect of the human experience. Curiosity is the root of knowledge, of learning, of exploration, of wonder, of empathy, of love, of self. It is the sponge through which we soak up everything we come to understand — about our neighborhood and our universe, about the past and the future, about our friends and our foes. And I’m not inclined to draw a big difference between wondering why the moon looks bigger near the horizon and why the guy who lives across the street runs his leaf blower a hundred times a year. There are answers to these questions.

And so the characters in The Keepers are nothing if not curious. Horace Andrews and his friends ask questions. Lots of them. They wonder and explore. They challenge what they are told and seek out better — more truthful — answers. They are required to discover for themselves the workings of their Tan’ji, the mysterious instruments that give them their powers. They contemplate the technical mechanisms of these instruments as much as the emotional bonds they forge with them. They reach out into foggy realms of time and space and mind and matter and they learn.

As the series opens, Horace’s nemesis Dr. Jericho gives him a warning: “Curiosity is a walk fraught with peril.” And so it often is, just like life itself. But Horace takes that walk, as we all do — as I hope we will all continue to do, more so every day. There are answers along the way, answers worth knowing.

Ted Sanders is the author of the short-story collection No Animals We Could Name, winner of the 2011 Bakeless Prize for fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in publications such as the Georgia Review, the Gettysburg Review, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. A recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, he lives with his family in Urbana, Illinois, and teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Keepers is his first series for younger readers. You can visit him online at