Every week I post a quick Q&A with one of our bloggers on the network, so you can get to know them better. This week, I chat with Jennifer Ouellette from Cocktail Party Physics.
Hello! Let's start with first things first. What is the name of your blog and why did you choose that name - what does it mean?
My blog is called Cocktail Party Physics, and I started it back in 2006, when my first popular science book was coming out (Black Bodies and Quantum Cats). That book was a series of essays on great moments in physics history, tying in the concepts with bits of popular culture -- film, TV, theater, poetry, music, art -- so I dubbed it cocktail party physics.
“Cocktail party physics” is generally a pejorative term among scientists, implying a lack of depth or substance. I’m reclaiming it with a positive spin. Not every discussion about science needs to be an earnest, pedagogical event. I also don't like the fact that science, and physics in particular, is so often viewed as somehow separate from the rest of culture, rather than an integral part of it. Most of what I write tries to restore science to its rightful place in our culture. A really amazing physics theory is just as jaw-droppingly beautiful as a painting by Cezanne, after all. Both are a testament to human ingenuity and creativity.
Where does the artwork for your banner come from, and what are you trying to convey with it?
My banner is the creation of artist/writer Jason Torchinsky, who lives down the street from us in Echo Park and teaches design at the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities. Here's what he had to say about designing the banner: "The design came from both the "cocktail" part of the name and Jennifer's desire to have a sort of sophisticated, 40s-era, almost noir-ish tone and feel for the look of the blog. Getting the right sort of cinematic lighting and sepia-without-looking-hokey coloring into the limited pixel area of a blog banner was challenging, but I'm pretty pleased with the end result. I'm going to start a rumor here that the banner is actually an animated GIF that takes several days per frame, and if you sit watching it for 200 hours, you'll see a stylish murder take place! So pass it on."
Tell us more about yourself - where are you from, how did you get into science?
Well, I'm not a scientist, and I wasn’t always a big science geek; my academic background is firmly in the humanities, although I enjoyed high school biology, and staring at constellations as a child (my favorite was Orion). Clearly the universe has a sense of humor, because while struggling to find my niche as a writer in New York City after college, I took a job with the American Physical Society, the largest professional organization of physicists in the US — you know, just to pay the rent for awhile until I could get back on my feet.
And something amazing happened: I belatedly fell in love with physics and became a science writer. It was my first exposure to science as it is actually done in the real world, rather than the more passive, textbook-oriented encounters I’d had with science previously. Suddenly I was visiting laboratories, interviewing physicists about cutting-edge research and its impact on biology, and seeing their passion for their work firsthand. I discovered the rich history behind modern-day physics, and the amazing people, past and present, who diligently labored for years on end to understand how our world works at the most fundamental levels.
If I HAD become a scientist, I think I would have been a forensic pathologist. I have a morbid streak.
How did you get into science blogging and science writing? What were the early influences on you regarding your blogging style and topics?
I started the blog at the advice of my then-editor at Penguin. Apparently all the cool kids were doing it. :) Seriously, at heart I have always been a blogger. Way back in the stone ages, before blogs existed, I used to write incredibly long letters to friends, then emails, telling stories, ruminating on pet topics, and detailing my latest adventures in science and beyond. So to have the perfect software platform for that emerge was like a dream come true. I took to blogging immediately. It's had a fantastic influence on my science writing, bringing out my unique "voice" and making me more comfortable with a looser, more colloquial (and audience friendly) style. When you write about physics, that kind of accessibility is important.
I was fortunate in those first few months to gain notice from folks like Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy) and Three Quarks Daily, and through them became aware of a the brave new(ish) world of science blogging -- including the then relatively new SEED Science Blogs. I declined an invite to join the network at the time, but it's been fun to see the science blogosphere flourish with tons of new networks.
Oh, and one other person introduced himself during my first month of blogging: physicist Sean Carroll, who blogs at Cosmic Variance. We started reading each other's blogs, leaving comments, and emailing back and forth, and finally met in April 2006 at a physics conference in Dallas. It was love at first sight, and six months later we were engaged. We're about to celebrate our fourth anniversary, so go us! And thanks, science blogosphere, for introducing me to the love of my life. :)
What is your blog about? Who is your target audience, and why do you think people should read your blog?
The title kind of says it all: I write about physics, but in a fun, light-hearted (dare I say "fluffy"?) way that works in references to popular culture whenever I can. I might riff on the latest physics paper, or something making headlines, but usually I use the blog to explore some angle that doesn't usually get covered in straight news stories: little-known stories, some historical context, a more detailed explication of the research.... But mostly, I just explore whatever catches my fancy, particularly if it's something I want to learn more about. In the process of writing the post, I learn, and then I get to share what I discovered with my readers.
Anything else interesting about you, perhaps cool hobbies?
Back when I was still living in New York City, I earned a black belt in jujitsu -- only the second woman in that particular system to do so. I have a lovely jagged scar on my forehead from a missed block, from a wound that required 14 stitches. I consider it a badge of honor. I also spent two years working as a liaison between science and Hollywood for the National Academy of Sciences, heading up a program called The Science & Entertainment Exchange. It's still going strong! And as fans of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson learned in February, I can play a rough rendition of "Home Sweet Home" on the harmonica -- a vestige of my musical training as a child (piano, guitar, and dabbling around with the harmonica).
[Image: "Seannifer" - the LEGO version of Jennifer and Sean, by Maia Weinstock]