It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, but since I last wrote I have written two science readers for 8th and 9th graders. One should be forthcoming later this year, the other next spring. To explain a little more about how this came to be and why it is so unexpected, let me share a piece I wrote earlier this year for ASJA’s The Word.
From Science Dunce to Science Writer?
I was never a good science student. While I excelled at other subjects, science made my eyes glaze over. When I took my last chemistry class at the age of 13, I left in my wake the remnants of so many failed experiments. I continued with physics just long enough to get my one basic qualification at 15. Never would I have to do science again.
How, then, do I now find myself with a forthcoming book on, of all things, nuclear fusion and fission? And why have some of my most rewarding (financially and mentally) writing projects involved the very subjects that once filled me with dread?
It all started a few years ago when an environmental consortium at the University of Kentucky approached me about a book project, charting the history of a gaseous diffusion plant. I explained that I knew nothing about the science and perhaps they might want to find someone with more experience in that particular field, but they replied that they knew exactly who they wanted. Me! In their words, “We have plenty of scientists. What we don’t have is someone who can turn their work into the stories that interest people.” I spent the next few months compiling histories of the plant and its employees. Sure, there was physics and chemistry. This was after all the era of the Manhattan Project. But that was just one part of a much larger story about how a nuclear plant changed an entire community. And I was surprised to find myself interested in the science. Once it was taken out of a classroom and put into a human context, it became something I could relate to.
That experience led to my being asked to write a science book for 9th graders, again on the topic of nuclear science. This time, there was much more hard science involved, and more than once I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Yet again, I found that if I focused on the stories of the scientists and their discoveries, the physics became easier to explain. I wasn’t writing for an audience of Nobel Prize winners; I was writing for 14 and 15 year olds. I needed to present the material in a way that they would both understand and enjoy. A few days after submitting the manuscript, my editor responded: “You knocked this out of the park!”
Do I now claim to be a science author? Not in the least. But I no longer shy away from the topic and I can hold a lengthy conversation about the history of nuclear discovery. Because, even with science, it’s about telling the story.