Timeline

2007: I embark on a PhD. It explores the history of scientific research into the origin of life on earth. I try to make some interesting points about science and scientists. It takes me ages to complete.

2014: My PhD thesis is accepted. One incidental finding from this period is that I don’t make a particularly good scholar. People who complete PhDs and wish to continue on the academic path need to have at least a couple of publications by this point, with more forthcoming. I have none. Acadæmia and I bid each other a friendly farewell. I find non-academic work in the public health sector.

2016: A publisher asks me if I’d consider writing a children’s picture book about microbes. I get my friend Julian on board and we make two books together.

2019: The publisher contacts me to ask whether I might be interested in writing a picture book about the origin of the universe – the Big Bang and so forth. My reply is that I’d happily write what they ask me to (I’m in the habit of saying “yes” to publishers very quickly, whatever they ask; this probably speaks volumes about my self-esteem as a writer, but so far it’s worked out well). However, I add, the origin of the universe isn’t very interesting to me. This is not to denigrate the origin of the universe – I’m a big fan of the universe myself – it’s just that my enthusiasm lies elsewhere. It just so happens, I tell the publisher, that I spent years looking into the origin of life. Would they like a book about that? The publisher responds well, and I’m sent off to write a book proposal.

A few days later, as I prepare my book proposal, I come across a problem: the territory I wish to cover has already been covered. A picture book called How Did I Get Here?, telling a story stretching from the Big Bang to the birth of the reader, already exists. It would definitely include the origin of life. Moreover, it was published in Australia, only the previous year. It’s been doing well. Moreover, I’m on record saying good things about the author/illustrator, Philip Bunting, whom I actually met in person for a brief moment in 2017. I even sent him a friendly email one day about a thing he wrote in a magazine. In short, my chances of plausibly denying that I knew of this book are low, and since I’m clearly a person who can get worked up about the origin of things, I’m a bit nervous. I want to see what this book is like.

The next day I rush out and grab a copy. Damnation! It’s very good! (I check with my 6yo son and he agrees). I do, however, note that the origin of life only takes up a couple of pages. I tell myself there’s more I can say on the topic. I put all of that in my book proposal and hope the publisher agrees with me.

A few weeks later the publisher emails: they’ve accepted my proposal and want me to write a children’s picture book about the origin of life. Dates and things are agreed on. The major question is who’d illustrate. Julian, when asked, is supportive but very busy with his own stuff.

Then the publisher does something interesting: she suggests asking Philip Bunting if he’d like to be the illustrator. I wouldn’t have thought of that – I’m still worried he’ll think I’m ripping him off. Well, I think, if that’s the case, at least now he’ll be able to tell me right away, before I’ve started writing. I seem to be the only one thinking along these lines: Philip is happy to come on board. We have a chat and get along swimmingly.

2020: Drafts fly back and forth between locked-down Melbourne and the Bunting residence in Queensland. We resolve heavy questions such as “What is Life?”, “How to honestly portray an open scientific question?”, “What does an atom really look like?” and “How many pirate eyepatches and Monty Python references can we possibly cram into a kids’ picture book?”

2021: The book is done, due to be published in August. The advance copy I receive looks good. In an odd way, it’s the first publication coming out of my PhD, started 14 years ago.  

The Tragedy of the Comma.

I found that I was actively avoiding using the printer in our office at work. Because of a comma. I’ll explain.

When I send something to be printed, it goes over to the communal printer. So I rock up to it and press the appropriate buttons, at which point it prints the document (I cannot fault the printer on that count), while displaying a short message. The message is the problem. I think it should’ve said “please wait”. What it actually says is “please, wait”.

I know that many of my fellow humans wouldn’t find that worthy of any attention at all, but to me, by the presence of the comma, my printer has just gotten rather emotional. That inserted pause reveals a rich backstory: “Please, oh please, kind Sir or Madam, wait”, the printer conveys, “Please, I am doing everything I can to perform efficiently and to your satisfaction, but I, too, have limits. I am sorry I cannot perform my duties more rapidly, or at least present you, who are so kind to me, with some modest entertainment while you wait. But please, please, do not walk away. Do not depart, frustrated, and leave me out here alone in the corridor, for it is but the work of another moment. Please, won’t you stay here and share with me this short while? This fleeting moment of our existence? Please, wait.”

I can’t bear it. Today I had a pretty lengthy double-sided job, and just seeing that “please, wait” as the printer frantically hummed, nearly reduced me to tears. The service technician for the printer was not receptive when I voiced my concerns, and next week I need to print out an entire annual report. In colour.

A brief note on the importance of having crumbs and socks and stuff scattered all round your workspace

Rule #1 of doing practically anything is that your first draft will be rubbish. Maybe there are exceptions; I don’t know. Maybe Picasso or Da Vinci could whisk off a completed work from a standing start, but we mere mortals usually can’t. Do you concur? Beautiful, thanks. Moving on.

For me, whenever I sit down to do anything even remotely creative, I immediately get jittery. A part of me seems to expect that whatever half-baked notion I had when I started is now supposed to reveal itself in its full glory, emerging from its cocoon of the mind and stretching colourful wings of brilliance across the alabaster page.

That never happens.

What does happen is that I scribble what I can, then I get up and go look in the fridge and when I come back and I look at what I’ve written and it’s still rubbish only somehow even worse than it was two minutes ago and I sit down again and write another sentence and delete it and the one before it for good measure and then I go to the toilet or try to find a sympathetic couch pillow that I can confide in, and so on. If I’m not at home much the same scene plays out, but with other objects and appliances playing the parts of the fridge or pillow.

All of this apparently has to take place, or writing (for me) doesn’t happen at all. I reckon it’s because I’m so afraid of doing badly that I need near-constant reminders that this isn’t ‘for real’. Quality? Originality? Creativity? Nah, I’m just messing around here, is all.

And that frame of mind is easier to sustain the more casual my surroundings. I shudder to think how paralysed I’d be if I had to sit in state behind an aged teak desk. Not for me the artwork over the fireplace; give me the used socks on the kitchen chair and the empty bowl from probably yesterday, with a forlorn teabag inside it for some reason. That’s how I roll.

(For 40 vastly more authoritative opinions, see here).

 

Competence and competition….and community

This Tuesday I’ll be hopping over to Sydney to attend the launch of a science writing anthology, The Best Australian Science Writing 2015. It should be a great read, from the few pieces I’ve been able to track down before I get my hands on the anthology itself. By all means grab a copy for yourself at your nearest book-dispensing entity. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about.

Here’s the thing: My piece, an excerpt from my immunology book, is on the shortlist for the Bragg science writing prize; the winner and the runners-up will be announced at the launch, so I don’t know yet. It’s an absolute honour to even be considered; to be frank , when I got the email telling me I’m shortlisted, the first thing that popped into my mind was the phrase ‘there must be some mistake’.

Still, to be even more frank  – and this is getting a bit uncomfortable for me to write – I’ve been walking around these past couple of weeks with a part of me nagging away anxiously “I wonder whether I’ll win it; I wonder whether I’ll win it”. And I seem to be thinking that, not just because it involves money, or that it’ll look nice on my cv (I’ll admit to both of these fairly legitimate, if somewhat embarrassing, considerations), but just so that I can say to myself that I’m BETTER.

Which is, of course, utterly idiotic. Not only has the decision been made already, but it is, anyone will admit, kind of meaningless. Any piece of writing in the anthology is bound to be of high quality; any piece on the shortlist would be of very high quality (I’ve read a couple and yes they are very good indeed) – and there is no way to objectively measure which piece is ‘the best’ of the lot – we’ve all written about different topics, in different styles and approaches, for different audiences, and under different constraints. How can winning be meaningful at all if you’re not even running the same race?

So when I try to analyse what I feel about this episode, I find that I can neatly separate two different kinds of feelings: the first came when I was told I’d been included in the anthology. It is a bright, well-scrubbed sense of professional competence – a validation of my ability that I can produce science writing to a high standard. This feeling is a useful tool in any professional’s toolbox, possibly even more than average for writers, who are notoriously plagued by self-doubt about their abilities. Such a sign that you’re okay at this writing thing can really really help when you’re struggling with a recalcitrant passage.

The second kind of feeling is one of competition – the wanting to win this. With all due respect to the cultural drive ‘to be the best’, in this case I find it’s useless, perhaps even damaging, for me to feel this way; if I do happen to win (and I don’t think that’s likely, by the way), it won’t validate my competence to any greater extent than it now is. It might even make me think about writing in competitive terms – which, again, is not even a thing. And if I don’t win, then I stand to be disappointed. Both results will affect not my professional view of myself, but the immature part of my ego that craves adoration (ouch).

And so, as Tuesday draws near, I’m working on myself, reiterating to my inner child that whatever happens in Sydney doesn’t matter. Oh, I’ll definitely be making some noise if I end up being the winner or a runner-up; but internally, for the person who’ll be sitting at the keyboard the next day, the result of the competition doesn’t matter. What matters is taking the next blank page and finding a way to tell another good story.

WEDNESDAY MORNING UPDATE:

The anthology launch was yesterday. It was great. I came home with a ‘runner-up’ award, which I’m very happy about. This year’s winner is Christine Kenneally, and her contribution is an exceptional story of Huntington’s disease excerpted from her most recent book.

In regards to all the stuff I wrote about above, I found that it took a neat little twist: After attending the launch, I feel – for the first time – that I’m a legitimate science writer, but I feel that not because of the formality of receiving a nice piece of paper, but because I was treated as a legitimate science writer by my fellow science writers, publishers, and other people who are interested in science communication. We talked, we shared anecdotes, views and ideas, laughed and sympathised. In short, I felt I was included by a community of my peers.

And so, what ended up mattering the most was the tribe. It seems obvious in retrospect; a science writer should’ve remembered that us humans are above all social animals who strive for inclusion. It’s a good feeling to have, isn’t it?

More than water

NASA’s announcement about evidence for flowing water on Mars is indeed very exciting – but I’d like to point out (as NASA has also been careful to do) that although water seems to be a necessary component for life, it does not follow that ‘where there’s water, there’s life’.

This might be the case on our own dear planet, but that logic cannot be extended to Mars. The only thing we know is that Life emerged once. We really can’t infer anything beyond that, because we don’t know how life started on Earth and whether the same process could happen again on another planet. It may turn out that life is a robust phenomenon, popping up when given even the slightest chance. Or life may have been a freak occurrence on one planet, which we’re only seeing because we’re among its products. We have no way of knowing until we travel to several other planets and investigate (by person or probe) thoroughly.

Personally, I’d be ecstatic to learn of life on Mars. But the history of research in exobiology and the Origin of Life often reads like a case study of grand hopes dashed. (if you’d like to read 70,000 words on the topic, here you go. Knock yourself out)

I think we all hold an instinctive expectation that life will be found on other planets; after all, our entire history as a species, for millions of years, has been one of continual exploration and movement from one place to another, and finding new and exciting life there. That all sort of stopped around the 19th century or so, when we finally ran out of unexplored territory. The planet was demystified, and we had no more world to conquer. And so we looked to the heavens – it is, I think, no coincidence that science fiction literature begins at this point in history – and we’re exploring other worlds, the final frontier. We know they’re completely different from ours, but somewhere embedded in our psyche is the assumption that we’ll find what we’ve always found when setting out into unexplored territory – life, opportunity, and exotic people. The idea that other planets are a different kind of thing, possibly barren lumps of rock too far away to be of any use, is something we sometimes find it hard to accept.

Darn Tootin’ My Own Horn:

Endorsements are in! I’m very excited. Also humbled to a near-catatonic state. Check them out:

This surprisingly ambitious, eminently accessible book brilliantly summarizes the essential features of the immune system for a lay audience. The quirky humour masks an underlying authority and competence. The work is right up to date, even incorporating recent Nobel Prize winning insights into the evolutionarily ancient innate immune system. It is a triumph of popular medical science.
Sir Gustav Nossal

An accessible account of a complex and important topic.
Prof. Peter C. Doherty, Nobel Prize winner

A terrific introduction to the complicated beast that keeps us alive.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

We’re putting them on the cover of Why Aren’t We Dead Yet – and now it’s off to the printers (I’m told) for the 23rd July publication.

Finally, for those of you who like the phrase “darn tootin’” as much as I do, here’s something completely unrelated and very, very funny