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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Dirk Hanson

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Dirk Hanson (Twitter, G+), author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction and writer at Addiction Inbox.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and went to college on a swimming scholarship. After graduating from Iowa State University in journalism with a minor in biology, and after putting in a couple of years as a business reporter for the Des Moines Register and Tribune, I moved west.

I ended up in San Francisco in the mid-70s, working for a trade paper put out by Fairchild Publications. As San Francisco bureau editor for Electronic News, I made regular trips to Silicon Valley to cover the new chipmakers, known as the semiconductor industry, composed of companies like Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. I came out of a liberal arts background, but was asked to cover Silicon Valley based on my editor’s belief that journalists who could learn the science were preferable to a staff of engineers who understood the technology behind it all, but couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag.

As I found out later, I was one of the first reporters in America to cover Silicon Valley as a full-time beat. It was a brutal learning curve, but I can’t imagine a better training ground for science reporting. I interviewed people like Ted Hoff, inventor of the microprocessor, and Robert Noyce, president of Intel and co-inventor of the integrated circuit. I ended up writing a book about it called The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution.

Eventually my wife and I moved out of San Francisco and plunged into the woods of northern Minnesota, where I wrote a novel, a technology thriller called The Seventh Level. I freelanced for computers magazines, and later on, I picked up an MA in Humanities at Cal State.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Somewhere along the way, my interests migrated from computers and machine intelligence to the human brain and neuroscience. I wrote a draft of a book about recent scientific research on addiction, for interested laypeople, but my agent had absolutely no luck finding a publisher. The only thing publishers wanted to hear about were drug confessionals. Newspapers and magazines were no longer a trustworthy market, and my two previous books were out of print. Luckily, I had started a modest blog called Addiction Inbox as a landing site on the Internet for discussion of the book—just the odd post about biochemical aspects of addiction, mostly press release rewrites, sort of a holding pattern, because I didn’t really know anything about blogging. But the blog grew slowly and steadily and took on a life of its own.

And of course, all of this coincided with the revolution in neuroscience, and our whole understanding of the brain changing due to insights about synaptic neurotransmission. I interviewed dozens of key researchers and decided to focus on pharmacological approaches to treatment—fighting fire with fire. In the book, I concentrated on explaining brain function, and particularly the function of reward systems. Eventually, I self-published the book, called The Chemical Carousel, in both paperback and Kindle formats, and continued to blog. I’ve been an online journalist ever since.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

The blogging led to a stint as senior contributing editor for the online addiction and recovery site The Fix. And I’ve stepped back into magazine freelancing, including a recent news piece at Scientific American about the ways in which alcohol affects women differently than men. A lot of my professional energy over the past year went toward establishing a daily news blog at The Fix, but I’ve stepped away from that to spend more time on stories at Addiction Inbox. I’m also interested in continuing to freelance as a science writer. And I’m looking at some e-book projects. And forever trying to finish another novel.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I’ve always been drawn to the places where art and science meet. That’s a good description of the key components of science blogging, I think. You’re writing about science and technology for digital media, in an entertaining way, with attention to the design details of your blog or website. The Science Online conferences are another good example of a science/technology/art/ mash-up.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

My primary writing activity at present is blogging. My recent book helps pay for that, since I’m an unaffiliated, independent operator. As for social networks, I wasn’t really interested until I discovered Twitter. With Twitter, there was suddenly this space on the web where information and intelligence and humor were being exchanged in real time by some very interesting and hard-working scientists and writers. And it’s basically a meritocracy. It’s also a fairly safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere for interacting informally with brilliant, accomplished women—and what, really, is more fun than that? Author William Gibson didn’t beat around the bush when he said that Twitter was “the most powerful aggregator of shared novelty humanity has yet possessed.”

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?

I came into the picture right when ScienceBlogs blew apart a few years back, and there was this frantic game of musical chairs, with science bloggers trying to find institutional homes, or branding themselves as independent bloggers. I thought maybe I had just wrapped up the shortest blogging career in history. Then along came what evolved into Independent Neuroblogs, the network where Addiction Inbox found a home, and then ScienceSeeker, the big science blog aggregator. That helped make it easier to join the party and keep track of things and get listed officially as a science blog.

But what really made it work for me was the early support I got from established science bloggers. People like Drugmonkey, Maia Szalavitz, David Kroll, Scicurious, Daniel Lende, among others, were all very open and encouraging in the early going. And Dr. Shaheen Lakhan at Brain Blogger encouraged me to write for him, giving me an early outlet to the greater blogosphere. Psychologist Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks was particularly helpful. He retweeted a lot of my stuff in the early going, for which I’ll be forever grateful. That brought attention to Addiction Inbox that couldn’t have happened in any other way.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you?

I’ve never attended a conference quite like it. It reminded me of some of the earlier collaborative stuff, like The Whole Earth Catalog and The Well and the Electronic Freedom Foundation. A highlight for me was sneaking off to the North Carolina Museum of Art to see a Rembrandt exhibition with a group of attendees that included two Pulitzer Prize winners.

The sweet spot where art and science meeting is definitely on the Web now, and it spins off into stimulating real-world activities like Science Online 2012. I’m really pleased to have managed to insinuate myself into the online structure, so to speak. I think as time passes, and as more science and science writing migrates online, it’ll get tougher and tougher for journalists to get back in the game if they’re offline.

Thank you so much for the interview, and I hope to see you back next year, at ScienceOnline2013.






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