[by Joan Horvath ’81]
“What do you DO all day?” There’s a certain furtiveness when someone asks a scientist or engineer this question: perhaps it is nervousness about how thorough and multi-syllabic the response is likely to be, or perhaps a sense that maybe it’s best not to know. As for me, I’m trying to get everyone so familiar with what scientists and engineers do that they won’t have to ask!
I graduated from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics a thousand “internet years” ago, when those of us who lived over on the Boston side had to hike over the Harvard Bridge to this place called a library to get information. It was, of course, uphill both ways in the snow to get to the Institute back then.
After a stint in grad school someplace with palm trees, I spent 16 years at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL is the place that sends out robots to explore other planets. The high point for me was when I was on the flight team for the Magellan spacecraft, which orbited Venus and sent back radar images of the surface. We got to see the images shortly after they came down, and I remember looking at Venus’ surface and saying to myself, “No one else in history has seen this before.” It was like being along with Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, but warmer and with better food.
In 2000 I left JPL to try out consulting, teaching and writing – a rather different style of exploring the world. At JPL I was usually surrounded by other techies, as I was when I was an undergrad at MIT. When I started consulting, though, I discovered that there was a little pause at business social events when I cheerily described myself as a rocket scientist. “She really is, too,” friends of mine would helpfully add, which made it even worse. You could see the wheels turning desperately to generate rocket scientist small talk: “So, what is it like to meet an alien?” They imagined a lab in my basement that involved arcing electricity and some creature that would call me “Miiiissstresss.” (This would have its points if Critter-Boy could vacuum, but we digress.) Then there were the people who asked, conversationally and expecting a short response, whether I “really believed” in evolution.
I had been complaining about this for years to friends of mine – Doug Adrianson and Hope Frazier, both former newspaper editors. A point came finally when we convinced ourselves that I should write a book telling stories about real scientists and engineers and that they should edit it. It would not be a book about the science itself – but about what it was like to live a techie life, about why people became scientists or engineers in the first place and then stayed that way. It had to be written in a style that wouldn’t scare people off, and be short enough to be read in a night.
Writing a book isn’t like engineering: there are right and wrong grammar choices (and even arguments there), but there are no standard answers about the best way to tell a story. I think of myself as a pretty good communicator. Imagine my surprise when the first installment came back from the editors in shreds. Says who? They asked after reading (obvious, to me) descriptions of why science worked a certain way. I was being boring, they said: who are you trying to impress? Tell stories like you would over lunch. Get out there and tell us about these people! “Let it rip!” It was like being at MIT all over again, complete with late-night rewriting.
More goes into a book than just the writing and editing. I wanted the book to have some illustrations, too, to make it more approachable. Brainstorming with artist Nichole Wong about visual ways to get across the energy and fun of doing science gave me yet a different perspective. For example, characters in the illustrations wear lab coats in a nod to the visual shorthand of what a scientist is, but are shown in settings beyond benches and glassware. Science fiction author Greg Bear wrote a foreword for us. Stargazer Publishing Company agreed to publish it and orchestrated the myriad of things that need to happen for a book to make it out the door.
So now it’s out there, standing on its own. It’s cool to think about someone I’ve never met reading what I’ve written and maybe thinking about science and scientists differently. Maybe a third-grade teacher will read it and understand why she needs to show her students how to do experiments. Maybe a parent who is uncertain whether a science career is a good idea will get more comfortable with his child’s tendency to take things apart. And maybe someone will vote for a candidate for office who understands science better than the opposition, all else being equal. (Hey, we can dream.)
But life gets in the way, too. Around the time we were finishing up writing the book, my friend and editor Hope was diagnosed with cancer. We lost her after what she called her nine month “dance” with the disease, a month before the release. I like to think that a bit of her carries on between those covers.
You’ll learn a lot if you to come to MIT. But the greatest thing you’ll learn is confidence to try something really different when the opportunity comes along. Make sure you grab every one of those you can!
Book details: What Scientists Actually Do. By Joan Horvath; illustrations by Nichole S. Wong with a Foreword by Greg Bear. 2008, ISBN 978-1-933277-08-0
Stargazer Publishing Company