When an editor approached me about writing a history of the telescope, I immediately declined. I didn’t have a science background; I’d never written about science. But then the editor said, “Think of it as an essay,” and I haven’t looked back.
What changed my mind was the realization that as a writer, I should be able to approach this topic, however daunting, just as I would any other. And that lesson is at the heart of what I try to teach students of Creative Non-Fiction: the element of narrative. Facts are facts, but the tools of fiction—characters, conflict, dialogue, action, setting—can transform useful information into compelling tales. My educational and professional background is in both fields—journalism and fiction. By combining my experience in conducting research with my experience in constructing narratives, I try to make even a somewhat esoteric subject accessible to a general readership.
In my most recent book—The Four Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)—I tell the behind-the-scenes story of the discovery that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, complete with bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, blind alleys and eureka moments. The science is the accelerating expansion of the universe, but the scientists are what drive the narrative.
My two previous books also cover the history and philosophy of science for non-specialist readers, Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens (Viking, 1998), and The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes (Viking, 2004). I'm also the co-author, with Temple Grandin, of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Along the Spectrum, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the spring of 2013. Although I have continued to write about non-scientific topics (and have published short stories through the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project and in Ploughshares), my primary focus has become the intersection of science and culture. My essays and articles on that subject have appeared in various sections of The New York Times as well as in Smithsonian, Discover, Natural History, Esquire, Outside, Seed, and many other publications, and have aired on National Public Radio.
My book The 4% Universe received the 2012 Science Communication Award from the American Institute of Physics and was longlisted for the Royal Society’s Science Books Prize.
I have received a 2008 Fellowship in Science Writing from the Guggenheim Foundation, a 2007 Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant from the National Science Foundation. My books have been translated into sixteen languages.
Throughout this surprising (to me) turn my writing has taken, I have always asked myself two questions that I also encourage students to ask of themselves:
1. Have I explained this topic in such a way that I would have understood it before I started my research?
2. Have I found a way to illuminate the human drama that is at the heart of every narrative, whether fact or fiction? If the answers are yes, then maybe I am -- we are -- heading in the right direction.