Andy Weir and Aliens

Hello Readers!

Thank you for following this journey with me of interviewing some of the world’s most creative and unique science writers. This week marks the last week for these blog cast interviews, HOWEVER, all of the interviews will be released as podcast episodes in my new podcast under the same name, From the Biblio-Files. If listening to podcasts is easier for you, this blogcast will become a treat to revisit old interviews from some of the most talented writers the world has to offer.

Before switching this blogcast over to a podcast, there is one more interview I want to highlight, one with extremely popular science fiction writer Andy Weir. Andy is the author of The Martian, a science fiction book about an astronaut who gets trapped on Mars and has to survive there for four-ish years before he can be rescued. Andy\’s writing not only highlights the science behind what it would take to survive on an alien planet but also the incredible detail and struggle for human survival. Since its publication, The Martian has become a best-seller and was even turned into a movie, starring Matt Damon! You can get a copy of the book here, for your own reading!

In having a pseudo-interview with Andy (over email), I was struck by how detail-oriented he was, as well as passionate about his work. The Martian began as a serial blog, where Andy would publish bits of the story sequentially until it was published as a book. The book helped to shift the way science fiction was being read, as Andy’s work was extremely realistic and contained actual science, not just fictional tropes such as aliens. The Martian helped to change how science fiction was seen and enjoyed by the public. You can read his full interview below for more information about how Andy worked on this piece of incredible science fiction.

K: When did you first become interested in Science Fiction? th+%281%29.jpg

A: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t into sci-fi. I guess it comes from being raised by a physicist and an electrical engineer. I was doomed to be a nerd from day one.

K: Did any early studies in the science in childhood, high school, or college influence the direction of your writing? 

A: I’m sure they did. Though the interest was already there. I never had to be nudged toward science. I went running to it from the beginning.

K: In the Martian, there are a lot of mathematical principles, ideas, and equations used to forward the plot as well as give credence to the science within the book. Did you use a mathematical background to write these mathematical ideas, or was your process of infusing math into the book more amateur-research-based?

A: Well, I’m certainly not a professional mathematician. But I have more than a layman’s knowledge. I definitely did a ton of research for the novel. Though the math itself wasn’t that hard for me. The other disciplines – especially chemistry – were the hardest for me.

K: What writers influenced the most you as you were beginning your writing career?

A: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

K: What inspired you to begin writing The Martian? And why a serial blog?

A: I was imagining a manned Mars mission, putting it together in my mind. Naturally, you have to account for failure scenarios and have plans for what the crew could do. I realized those failure scenarios made for a pretty interesting story.

I did it as a serial blog because I had given up on being a professional writer by that time. I was just writing for fun, and I liked getting feedback on every chapter.

K: What was the process like for researching the science behind The Martian? Did you speak to any scientists? 

A: The research effort ended up being tons and tons of Google searches and a bunch of math. I didn’t know anyone in aerospace at the time I wrote the novel, so I was on my own. But I like researching, it’s fun for me. So it wasn’t a problem.

K: Did you think your work would have this much impact on the science fiction genre or how people view science fiction in general?

A: Not at all. When I wrote “The Martian”, I thought I was writing it for a very tiny niche audience of hardcore nerds who wanted to see all the math and science completely described. I had no idea it would have mainstream appeal.

K: How do you think The Martian has impacted how people see astronomy, astrophysics, NASA, or other space-related science fields and ideas? 

A: Oh, I don’t think it impacted the sciences at all. It’s just a (hopefully fun) fictional story.

K: What was the process like of developing your book into a popular film? 

A: Mostly my job was just to cash the check. Though they did send me the screenplay to get my opinion. They weren’t required to listen to anything I had to say. They kept me updated on the production because they’re cool. And in the end, the film is very true to the book, so I\’m happy.

K: How do you feel about how science is communicated to the general public in the media?

A: Any communication is better than none. But I do often feel like the media doesn’t quite report things correctly. Not because of bias, but because they don’t do enough to understand the subject material or they don’t consult scientists with opposing opinions to the scientific claim that is the news story.

Carl Zimmer and the Impact of Genetics

 Hello Readers! 

This week I have a real treat of presenting the work of one of the most popular science journalists and writers in our current written world. Carl Zimmer has been a writer for some time, and his reputation for being a thorough investigator and storyteller has brought him much success. 

In the interview below, I focus on Carl’s giant book (and I do mean giant) She has Her Mother’s Laugh. In this book, Carl gives a long history of genetics and its current implications. From eugenics with Galton to evolution with Darwin to genetic testing using 23andMe, Carl discusses it all. His research is profound and his arguments, compelling. In reading this book, you better understand how technology has improved to where we can understand more about genetics than ever before. From its secrets and scandals to struggles and successes, Carl discusses all of it. It’s no wonder the book is a lengthy read, as he covers almost every topic imaginable under the umbrella of genetics. I’d highly recommend this read if you’re interested in understanding human genetics or medicine better. It is a well-researched and well-written book. You can find your own copy here. 

 

Carl is continuing to work on some future books, covering varying topics. In taking a break from writing, he has launched his own podcast, called What is Life? where he interviews some of our leading thinkers to answer this question. His episodes are engaging and taped before a live audience, so it’s easy to feel you’re right there in the room. Have a listen at this link. 

I’d recommend listening to the interview with Carl below, as he shares more on his research processes, including being part of various human experiments. 

Cody Cassidy and the Physics of Weird Deaths

 Hello Readers! 

This week’s blog is a bit morbid, as I interviewed the popular author Cody Cassidy, about his book And Then You’re Dead, which focuses on the physics of weird deaths. And by weird deaths, I’m talking about jumping into a volcano or black hole, or getting swallowed by a whale or shot out of a cannon. While Cody’s book focuses on a bleak topic, it’s far from bleak, and rather is quite humorous and interesting. 

I wanted to interview Cody for some time, and when I finally had the privilege to, I was amazed by how fascinated he was with this topic. He co-wrote this book with physicist Paul Doherty, and together they write fascinating stories about how you die in certain weird situations. In speaking with Cody, he told me that he had multiple other “deaths” on his laptop that he didn’t include in the book, but that he is hoping to expand on at some future point. 

When I asked him about his “favorite” death that he researched, I was half-expecting something totally random, like jumping into a black hole. Cody surprised me by talking about being swallowed by a whale, and how the end result is you being turned into whale spit, which is used in the perfumery industry. Who knew!? 

You can find Cody’s book here if you’d like your own copy. Currently, Cody works as a science journalist for Wired magazine. I recommend listening to the interview below as Cody explains his writing process. 

Brian Jones and Curiosity

 Hello readers, and Happy New Year! 

I thought it would only be appropriate to kick the new year off to a good start by showcasing the work of someone I greatly respect and admire. Brian Jones is a professor at Colorado State University (CSU) who teaches physics. I was privileged enough to take two of his classes. As you’ll hear from the interview below, Brian is the type of teacher focusing on students who put-off by physics, either by thinking it’s too math-y or too scary. Brian makes his classes interactive, bringing in real-life examples of different physics ideas. I remember one day he brought in a giant Tesla coil, then had all of us stand around the room to observe the effects of the coil. To say I was absolutely mesmerized would be an understatement. 

As much as I’d love to continue bragging on Brian for the rest of this post, I instead want to talk about Brian’s traveling science exhibition called Little Shop of Physics (LSOP). Brian inherited this project when he first began teaching at CSU and has transformed it into a world-traveling exhibition. You can find LSOP’s website here. LSOP gives a series of hands-on activities for students of all ages to try, to learn more about physics specifically, but also about science in general. Brian has found great success with this project, as students have asked their own teachers to teach science in a similar way to Brian’s exhibition. Brian’s goal with LSOP is not only to encourage the curiosity of young minds, but also the curiosity of teachers’ as well. Brian shows teachers how to teach science in more interactive ways, as well as using low-budget materials. 

 

In our interview, Brian emphasized the importance of starting to nurture curiosity at a young age. From fourth to sixth grade is when the student really solidifies their views on science. Having an environment that encourages creativity and curiosity in young people will result in a more positive outlook toward the sciences. But, Brian added, this also needs to happen in the teachers as well. If teachers show timidity or confusion in teaching the sciences, their students will reflect these emotions. LSOP helps both students and teachers to see science in a more positive light, and to understand that physics does not have to be scary. 

Brian also told me about his world travels with LSOP, from going to inner-city Denver to Ethiopia and Namibia. One of Brian’s goals with LSOP was to show teachers how to teach interactive science on a budget, especially for lower-income schools. From these efforts, Brian was invited to teach in Africa, showing how to teach science there. Brian, however, didn’t just teach science but wanted to understand how other cultures taught science as well, and instead made LSOP more of an exchange program. He discusses in the interview the importance of sharing knowledge systems with other cultures. 

With COVID-19, things have been difficult for LSOP, but Brian has been able to continue the learning processes via zoom and other methods. He discusses it more in the interview below. I highly recommend listening to Brian’s interview, as it gives wisdom for all of us to better understand not only physics but ourselves in general. 

Florence Williams and the Need for Nature

 Hello Readers and Happy Holidays! 

This week I’m both honored and flattered to have interviewed Florence Williams, author of the book The Nature Fix. Florence is a contributing editor to Outside magazine and has two best-selling books, including The Nature Fix. She also has a couple podcasts as well that are worth listening to. You can listen to them here. 

I first read The Nature Fix earlier this year and immediately found it relevant to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this book, Florence interviews several researchers studying the psychological and physiological effects that nature has on humans. She also participates in several of these studies, from hiking in Scotland to forest bathing in Japan. I found myself while reading the book, desiring to be outside more and more, as I’m sure you will feel too once you give her book a read. Florence’s descriptions are breathtaking and picturesque, making the outdoors seem irresistible. At the beginning of the book, Florence moved from Boulder, Colorado to Washington DC. The move from a more rural area to an urban one gave her stress and inspired her to look into why nature has powerful effects on the human mind and body.

In interviewing Florence, I spoke with her about her research process for this book. Florence told me that she was able to receive funding to travel all over the world for this book, participating in these studies as well as focusing on the researchers and scientists themselves. Her first-person perspective gives relatable and valuable insight into how nature interacts with us personally. You can find your copy of the book here. 

Check out the interview below to listen to more!

 

Matt Montrose and the Power of Games

 Hello, Readers! 

 

Today I have a real treat in store for you, as I interviewed Matt Montrose, of Montrose Biology. Matt developed a card game called “Ecologies” which helps teach the science of food webs, trophic levels, and ecologies. I picked up this game after seeing an ad for it on social media, and I have to say it is a personal favorite. It’s small, easy to learn, and the artwork is just stunning! 

 

Matt’s idea for the game came from his job. As a high school biology teacher, he developed a proto-game to teach the science of food webs. His students and their parents loved the game so much that they asked him to develop it into a professional format and sell it. Matt did just that and used public domain Victorian artwork as the designs for each of his cards. The artwork comes from old science publications, maps, and other sources, each beautifully remastered to go with the game. Sometimes I get distracted by the cards’ artwork and forget it’s my turn to play! 

 

The “Ecologies” game is easy enough to learn and can be played by anyone, including kids over 8. It’s a great Christmas gift idea. I taught my parents how to play, and they thought it was really nerdy at first (which it is), but ended up loving it. The game works similar to Solitare, and players get points by building specific ecologies. In building your ecologies, you learn about trophic levels, consumers, and producers, as well as specific ecologies around the world. The game even has an expansion pack: “Bizarre Biomes,” which gives more ecologies and animals to play and can be played by itself without having the original pack. Matt is currently working on other specific expansion packs, including a marine one. You can learn more about the game here. 

As a science communicator, I appreciated the effort and time Matt put into this game to help make science more fun. I’d highly recommend buying this game for a Christmas gift or a loved one, and it helps support local business. You can get your own game copy at Matt’s Etsy shop

Listen below to our interview to learn more about Matt’s inspiration, research, and the game itself! 

 

 

 

Heidi Olinger and the Power of Young People

 Hello Readers! 

Today is a real treat as I get to brag about Heidi Olinger, a powerful voice within the Colorado community. Heidi is the founder of Pretty Brainy, a non-profit organization that encourages young women to pursue careers within a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) field. Heidi started Pretty Brainy back in 2008 when she noticed a large gap in toys and clothes for young girls that were science-themed. She wanted to empower young girls by giving them examples of science as well as science-themed toys and activities. From there, Pretty Brainy was born and has continued to flourish as a non-profit. 

I have been fortunate enough to work with Heidi in one Pretty Brainy yearly program called MISSion Innovation. This program gets a bunch of young women together, from middle school to college-age, and challenges them to find ways to empower others to better their local environment. This past September, MISSion Innovation launched its first app, which you can find in any app store. This app gives you tools and ways to help save energy and be more environmentally conscious within your own home. I’ve personally used it and loved it! 

While the interview below does cover Heidi’s work at Pretty Brainy, it was Heidi’s recent middle-age book, Leonardo’s Science Workshop, that I wanted to talk to her about. Heidi wrote this book to lead children through a series of interactive science activities to teach them more about science. As we discuss below, Heidi designed and did many of these activities herself, as well as got many of the Pretty Brainy young members to help her. 

This book is for young people of all ages, not just children. The activities inside are easy and fun to do. Heidi’s book also goes a bit into the history of Leonardo Da Vinci, his work, and his impact on our society. If you’re stuck inside looking for something fun or new to do, I’d highly recommend getting this for yourself or your kiddos. You can find a copy here. 

Heidi is still working hard at Pretty Brainy, pivoting the programs to be fully online due to COVID-19. She’s also currently working on a book for encouraging young people to use meditation. Her passion for her community, as well as her drive for the young people around her to succeed, is something I admire and respect. I highly recommend listening to the interview below, as Heidi’s passion comes across clear and strong. 

Robert Charles Wilson and the Importance of Science Fiction

 Happy Monday Readers!     

This blog is one that I thought I would never write, just because I thought I would never interview this author. Robert Charles Wilson, who I will be talking about today, is a well-known and award-winning science fiction writer. His work has spanned decades, with book titles such as Gypsies, Darwinia, and Spin. While this blog covers popular science writers, I also wanted to interview a science fiction writer, as science fiction is a surprising but impactful way that science can be communicated. Many scientists around the world will tell you they became interested in science due to reading science fiction. Even amateur scientists and science lovers will agree that science fiction has played an important role in how the general public has viewed science. 

Before I discuss the interview, I must give a notice that I did not interview Robert Charles Wilson in person, but rather over email. Robert is a very private individual, and with respect to his wishes, the interview below was voiced by myself and my fellow science fiction reader, Austen Hughes. Robert gave us permission to read the interview this way, and I am grateful for him taking the time to share his thoughts with us. 

  Robert’s books all contain strains of science within them, making them integral to certain storylines. In the interview below, I discuss Robert’s book Spin, which won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 2006. Spin discusses changes in time and humans’ perceptions of time, as well as space travel, Martians, and even cults. The few books of Robert’s I have read offer new perspectives on how science impacts society, from Victorian botany to alien politics. Robert’s books hook you in from the beginning and keep you entertained as well as challenged. As you’ll hear in the interview below, Robert is an expert on plot twists, so you’ll find a surprise ending by the time you finish his book. You can find your own copy of Spin here. 

Robert hasn’t been writing for a while, but his most recent work is a short story that you can find in the sub-Terrain magazine here. 

In the interview below, you’ll find Austen Hughes and I talk about Robert’s books Spin and Darwinia specifically, but also the common themes within his work. Even if you’re not a Robert Charles Wilson fan, or have read very little science fiction, have a listen below, as it’s important to see how science fiction impacts our world today. 

 

 

 

James Trefil and the Need for Nerds

 Hello Readers! 

    This week I want to showcase the writings of James “Jim” Trefil, who I was privileged enough to interview. Jim Trefil is a physicist and a professor at George Mason University. Jim has written over fifty books, which is a lot, but the one I focused on for the interview was Why Science? 

   download+%281%29.jpg I picked up Why Science? a couple years ago at a used bookshop, intrigued by the title. As I began reading Jim’s book, I became more interested in science communication. Jim argues in Why Science? that everyone should be scientifically literate, and understand the basic principles of science, in order to better understand society, science in general, and the current global trends. Jim takes his argument from multiple sides, culture, civics, aesthetics, and discusses the benefits of having a better science-literate populace. In our interview, Jim called it his “manifesto” 

    Jim also gives examples in his book about the current state of science literacy, as well as ways to improve it. Even though the book is about ten years old, the topics discussed inside are still increasingly relevant. From controversial topics of climate change and global warming, Jim covers the need for better science communication towards a broader audience. You can get your own copy of Jim’s book here if you’re interested. I’d highly recommend for anyone interested in learning how they can better keep up with current research and science topics. 

    In our interview, he discussed how he’s still writing, and currently is working on a book with famous scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which will be exciting to see. I doubt he’ll ever give up writing, which is a good thing as he makes some profound points. If you want to learn more about Jim’s book, listen to our interview below! 

 

Randy Olson and Narratives of Reel Life

To my Readers,

 
It is best if I start this blog by saying that I did NOT think I would actually get an interview with this author.

Randy Olson, for those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, is a scientist-turned-filmmaker, and currently works at Story Circles Narrative Training. Story Circles is a program that teaches people how to use narratives to write and communicate better. Randy uses the ABT method, which stands for And, But, Therefore. These three words are used to help both construct and analyze a narrative. Randy uses this framework to help both scientists better write grants and proposals, but also anyone looking to be a better communicator and writer.

 
Randy’s big documentary was Flock of Dodos in 2006, which focused on debates between intelligent design and the scientific theories of evolution.
 
Randy’s two best-selling books I recommend to all: Don’t Be Such a Scientist (2009) and Houston, We Have a Narrative (2015). Both of Randy’s books deal with how science is portrayed and communicated in the media and with the public. The books also give models and methods of how to communicate technical information to broader audiences. You can find these books here at Randy’s website. 
 

I picked up Randy’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, out of curiosity by the title. I was about to head into my master’s program in Science Communication at Imperial College, London, and was researching books that would help me to better understand how science is currently being perceived and communicated by public audiences. Randy’s book was intriguing, to say the least, and extremely practical for helping to better shape my own writing. I went on to read Randy’s other book Houston, We Have a Narrative in the few months after reading his first book. I found it just as compelling and engaging as his previous work, and I was curious to better understand the author behind these two practical reads.

I had contacted Randy previously for an interview and was finally able to make contact. In our initial exchange over email, Randy told me: “I hope you’re not going to be offended when I begin by saying there shouldn’t even be such a topic as ‘science communication.”‘ This piqued my curiosity, as I wondered how an award-winning documentary maker such as Randy, who focused on climate change and the communication of science, didn’t want “science communication” as a topic to exist.

 
Once Randy and I started the interview, it became more apparent why Randy didn’t agree with “science communication” as a topic. Randy’s own personal reasons for this you can listen to in the interview below, as I’d rather him explain it in his own words.
 
Randy’s story is fascinating as there is only one other person I know has a similar background of scientist-turned-filmmaker:  the late Michael Crichton. Randy and I did, in fact, talked about Crichton’s work and the impact he made on both the scientific community and the American public. Randy highlighted that a viewpoint that both he and Crichton shared, which is that scientists don’t listen. Crichton’s last speech, given at an AAAS event, discussed some of the big scientific issues. You can read the speech here, and better understand what Randy means when he says “scientists don’t listen.” By this Randy, explained that scientists don’t understand how the media works, and don’t understand how to communicate substance in the world of style. Randy further explains that scientists don’t like to be self-critical of their own communication, which has led to his books and himself not being fully accepted by the scientific community.
 
I highly recommend that everyone listen to Randy’s story below, as it is full of compelling, challenging, and humorous moments. It teaches all of us about how to better understand our own narratives, as well as how to better understand our scientific community.