Name: Darcy Gentleman
Born: London, Ontario
The things you read have to be written by somebody and when it comes to science, it generally is someone who has a background in science & a love for writing. Darcy invites us into the world of what being a science writer is all about.
What is a Science Writer?
A Science Writer is a translator between scientists and non-scientists. Science writers make sure that exciting science is communicated to everyone, which requires teaching the “general public” a little science so it makes sense. Some Science Writers are journalists, some write books, and some are teachers.
Tell us a funny (but clean) joke related to your profession (or a science joke)?
This is really bad, but:
Why did the bear dissolve in the water?
Because it was polar.
What is a typical day like for you?
I generally wake up around noon (with an alarm) and proceed to caffeinate, preferably with Earl Grey tea, but espresso-style coffee if I really need to be with it quickly. Then I try to avoid procrastinating via email or reading every article on the New York Times’ website.
I work in 4 hour blocks unless I have a very pressing deadline, in which I work in 6-9 h blocks. Within a block, I can write in an unbroken stream for about 3 hours, edit for up to 4 hours, but reading science references is something I can only do well 2 hours on, 2 hours off. Illustrations I can do for up to 9 hours straight, so long as I can have music on. I like it totally quiet when I write, so sometimes instead of working at home, I go to a law library where you can hear a pin drop.
Between the blocks, I do anything but work so that my brain can come back up to its full ability. The gym is especially good for this because it forces me to concentrate on something that isn’t work, so it’s like a mental nap of sorts. Other times, I’ll watch TV or socialise. I limit any computer game playing to weekends, as a reward for getting real work done through the week. Then I get down to work again at some point between 10pm and 12am, and work until at least 3am. (It’s 2am as I write this). I tend to go to bed around 4am, having done 6-8 hours of work on a normal day, up to 12 hours on a heavy day. I take most Friday nights and all Saturdays off, and usually work at half capacity on Sundays.
If you had to be a vegetable, what would it be and why?
Cauliflower – Mark Twain said it’s like broccoli with an education. Mmmmmm, broccoli.
Did you always want to be a Science Writer?
I learned an awful lot of science from books, starting with one on dinosaurs before I could read. I realised through university and my research training in graduate school that I really wanted to share science information with others. So I feel that my being a professional Science Writer now is my way of giving back in thanks to all those who helped me get to this point.
What courses in high school prepared you for this field?
All of them, but most especially English and History. Those courses require you to write really well, to either explain a concept or form an argument. Math courses were also good preparation, because they require you to think about nature in a way that is a little different from the every day. I found science classes fun, but I had learned over 90% of their facts before in books. I didn’t really start to learn what science is all about until I started doing science in university.
What celebrity do you most resemble?
Andy Hurley – the drummer for Fall Out Boy
Where did you go to university or college?
I did a Bachelor of Science in Planetary Science and Chemistry at the University of Toronto, then a Master’s and a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. My PhD is specifically in analytical chemistry, and I researched using fibre optic sensors to measure the salt content of ocean water.
How did you decide where to go?
Toronto is way cooler than small town Ontario, so that was an easy decision. For grad school I wanted to go somewhere different from my undergrad institution for the experience. I was attracted to the desert of the U.S. SW, but what really drew me was the chance to work on real NASA science. In 1998, the year before I started grad school, ASU became part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and I wanted to combine my planetary science and chemistry interests. Ultimately, the planet I was concerned with was Earth, and I like to say I showed that it is possible to study the ocean in a landlocked desert.
Was there extra training required for this career after you finished university? If so, what?
In my case, no. All scientists have to communicate their findings, and most doctoral programs these days require you publish at least one paper for other scientists to read. I also taught chemistry to grades 9-12 and university for a few years, which is another type of science communication. However, I know some Science Writers who went to journalism school after a science degree, some specifically a Master’s in Science Communication or some such program. There are also Science Writers who never studied science in university.
What’s your favorite phrase?
“Welcome to the party, pal!” and so many other great lines in Die Hard
What is the coolest part of your job?
Setting my own schedule (can anyone tell I’m nocturnal?) and justifying reading anything as working.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Needing incredible self-discipline to set my own deadlines and stick to them. There’s nothing worse than getting into the vicious cycle of procrastination. Also, some days produce nothing but a lot of crumpled up paper (or multiple digital drafts) that all have fewer than 10 sentences.
What’s the best advice your mother gave you?
A kitchen can never have too many wooden spoons.
Ooooops! Everyone makes mistakes so what was the dumbest thing you've ever done at work?
Thinking a 20 page chapter I’d written was crap, re-writing it from scratch over 6 weeks, thinking the new version felt better, then comparing the two versions and finding them almost the same.
Any advice that you would give others seeking a similar career?
Everyone says this, but if you don’t really enjoy writing and learning, this career is not for you. Think of how many scales the great guitar players had to slog through, or simple rhythms for drummers. It’s discipline, discipline, discipline. And always, always, always remember your audience. Writing science for six year olds is much harder than writing science for hard core scientists. And make sure that all of your facts are cross-checked.
What’s your favorite cartoon character?
Bender from Futurama
What are some great web links or references for someone interesting in reading up more about this career?
– David Brin has a PhD in astrophysics and is a best-selling sci-fi author. He has some inspiring advice for would be writers and some helpful web links. Lots of other authors are starting to do this on the web as well. I’ve been meaning to read Stephen King’s book on writing, but haven’t gotten to it yet.
– site of my procrastinating ways, but partially because of their great science section every Tuesday. They’ve recently released all their archives to the public domain, so there are literally hundreds of examples of well-written science articles there.
The Freelance Writer’s Bible by David Trottier
. It sells itself as “Your guide to a profitable writing career within one year,” but whether or not that is your intent, it kicks you in the ass when you need it, and hugs you when you need that.
The book that got me most interested in becoming a scientist is
by Carl Sagan. I recommend it to anyone interested in science.