As we wheel a little unsteadily into another arbitrarily counted orbit of our star I feel that a little reflection is in order, with a smattering of honesty.
This particular baring of truths is because of all the times that someone has asked what motivates me to write and talk about science – both my own scientific work and the more general ebb and flow of research and discovery. Usually I don’t get to really answer the question, the interrogator typically fills in the blanks with “…it’s so important to inspire young minds…” or “…there’s such interest in all these big questions.” All of which I agree with, but I’m also secretly nursing a sizeable amount of guilt, because to be completely honest I have a whole set of other, quite personal reasons for why I expend so much time on writing and expounding.
In the past 8 years, or thereabouts, I estimate that I’ve written close to 400 blog pieces (mostly here at Life, Unbounded), a dozen or more short pieces in other places (even including the New Yorker, an accomplishment of some personal pride), Op-Eds, and a similar number of longer essays and reviews. I’ve also knocked out 3 well-received, full-length pop-science books (Gravity’s Engines, The Copernicus Complex, and most recently, The Zoomable Universe). Plus loads of interviews on screen and radio, many public talks, and goodness knows what else along the way.
It’s been great, and a wonderful balance to my day-job trying to do actual, bona fide, scientific research and teaching. And that’s the first part of my guilty admission. Most of the time I do not write out of any great altruistic purpose, I write because I bloody well enjoy it. Discoveries and insights to the workings of the natural world, and our machinations over it, intrigue and delight me. It’s a fun mental exercise to take this material and mold it into something readable, and to color it with my own thoughts and impressions. The act of writing, the placement of words, is a therapeutic art for an overwrought mind.
I suppose it’s also a form of applied science – I take all those years of learning and practicing scientific skills and use them to try to decode other science into forms that even I can understand and properly enjoy. I also like the one-way conversation that this writing allows. I do think of my readers, I just don’t want to think of them talking back to me while I’m writing, it’s lovely! (I’m still delighted when people do respond to what I write, but that’s all after the process of putting pen to paper, so it’s fine).
This inner reality does of course make me feel a bit bad when I hear other scientists earnestly describing their passion for communication and the importance of (take your pick) role models, teachers, demystification, public education, children, small vulnerable animals, maths, and sciencey things. These people seem to actually have a plan! I am both in awe and slightly resentful.
The other reason I write about science is because it’s a wonderful way to test out ideas. In that sense, for me, science writing is also actually part of the scientific process. It’s sometimes hard to know what to do with crazy hypotheses or still-nebulous insights, but forcing yourself to write about these for others is a terrific way to begin to test these thoughts, to put them under stress. It’s also a way to mull over small inspirations, to record these questions and ideas. Maybe I’ll read about how fast a spacecraft is going and I’ll ask myself ‘I wonder what the fastest spacecraft are, and why?’ Or perhaps I’ll read about gravitational wave detections and ask myself what this means for us as a species.
In that sense my popular science writings are a bit like a great open notebook, or a public confessional of the things currently bouncing around in my brain. It’s certainly fun, and ego boosting, to see people react to anything I’ve written (obsessive monitoring of pageviews and retweets are commonplace at my desk). I’ll confess that I can be easily drawn to writing about a topic because I realize that it’ll probably pull in an audience, but that thought mainly serves as a little adrenal injection just to get things going in the first place.
But I don’t think that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I kind of think that this is a good complement to all the deliberately pedagogical or ‘ask a scientist’ type material that’s out there. There’s clearly a demand, and a need, for all of that. There’s also a place for scientists to be speaking their minds, to be sharing real, warts-and-all, ideas (not just the usual received wisdom), to be having a public conversation – even if it’s just with themselves.