You left the cocoon of Princeton when you were 16. Why?

I was a rebellious adolescent. It was the ’60s. Everyone was rebellious. I hated high school. When they wouldn’t let me graduate early because I hadn’t taken gym, I quit altogether and went off to British Columbia. It was a time when a lot of kids ran away from home. My father didn’t stop me. At first, I worked with this guy who’d built his own boat, and we ran around the Northwest delivering things. I loved it. Canada had real wilderness. British Columbia was like Yosemite in the ocean. Being there was so liberating — getting my own food, making my own living. I built myself a boat in the style of the Aleut-Russian kayak, the baidarka. I’d work on tugboats and fishing boats for a while, and then I’d take my baidarka and explore. I did this for about 20 years.

And today you make your living as a historian of science and technology. How does a high school dropout get to do that?

Hey, this is America. You can do what you want! I love this idea that someone who didn’t finish high school can write books that get taken seriously. History is one of the only fields where contributions by amateurs are taken seriously, providing you follow the rules and document your sources. In history, it’s what you write, not what your credentials are.