I want to tell you about the role models that I have followed over the years even before I even thought about becoming a writer. If my writing could become a combination of the writing of each of them, basically mimicking their best traits, I think I’d be set for life. Of course, this is kind of wishing to have the basketball ability of Michael Jordan (the best in any time period; end of story, look him up), Shaquille O’Neal’s height, and Larry Bird’s aim (yes, I have not watched NBA games in a long time and yes, I am a child of the 80s).
Anyway, as much as I‘d like the above things to occur, it is not likely to happen, but I can still enjoy basketball nonetheless.
I feel pretty much the same about my role models in science writing as I feel about my basketball heroes. You see, I have a few “science writing heroes”. Each one has his or her own particular trait that I admire the most. By necessity, this is a partial list. I am a bookworm, after all, and I therefore enjoy most book flavors.
That said, here’s my science writing “dream team”…
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992).
He was arguably one of the best-published authors ever. He started his writing career as a science-fiction writer, but it seems that he is the only author ever to publish at least one book in each category of the Dewey decimal system (the one they use in libraries all over). He was an organic chemist by training (Columbia PhD, and he was NOT a biochemist; this is a common misconception because he was a faculty member in the biochemistry department of Boston University). He actually never did much scientific research; apparently he only published five papers or so. However, he wrote close to 500 books!
He has a special place in my heart because his clear prose made me want to read more. He was not pretentious or pompous, at least in his books. In fact, he is one of my two so-called “Google Authors”, the kind of writer that was able to connect seemingly unrelated pieces of knowledge into a coherent whole. I also loved his fiction. Are you familiar with “I Robot” and “Bicentennial Man”? These movies were based on Asimov’s stories. One of my Asimov’s favorites is his Foundation series, where he introduced us to a fictional branch of science, psychohistory.
Carl Sagan (1934-1996).
He was probably one of the first celebrity scientists of the 20th century. An astronomer by training (U. of Chicago PhD), he published about 600 scientific papers (!) and about 20 books by himself or with collaborators. I have said elsewhere that I have always loved science, but by reading Sagan, I understood why I love science. The first book of his that I read was the Cosmos adaptation, but my favorite bar none is Broca’s Brain. In his lifetime, for a variety of non-so-complex reasons, he was unable to have his cake and eat it two. His commitment to educating the public and his “celebrity” status, did not agree too much with many scientists who ran the National Science Foundation at the time. In fact, this episode from his life has a proper name: The Sagan Effect.
Anyway, he wrote with passion and in fact, he won a Pulitzer for his book The Dragons of Eden. In my mind, reading him was like being with a quite smart big brother, lying down on a grass field looking at the star talking about the many “big pictures” of nature. Longing to know more, yet with an underlying sadness born of the realization that we will never know everything…
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)
He is my second example of a “Google Author”. A paleontologist by training (U. of Chicago PhD), this man was able to connect the natural sciences with virtually every other branch of knowledge. He wrote beautifully, but truth be told, he developed a pompous style that discouraged people of reading his latest works. Sadly, I am one of those people. However, my first book of his, in fact his very first, Ever since Darwin, a compendium of some of his essays for Natural History Magazine has a special place in my heart. This book was one of the assigned texts of my first evolution course, at the University of Puerto Rico, in 19 none-of-your-*******-business… I have loved the concept of evolution ever since. To read Gould was like sitting at a comfy chair, hot beverage in hand, thinking quite a lot and doing almost nothing…
Edward O. Wilson (1929- )
Probably my favorite natural history writer. He is quite prolific in both his scientific output as well as in his book writings, having won not one, but two Pulitzer prizes. Dr. Wilson is an entomologist (Harvard PhD) and the undisputed world authority on ants and superorganisms. My favorite book of his is Naturalist. When you read this book, I am pretty sure you will like to become precisely that, a naturalist, just learning about our living world and wonder in its sheer beauty. His writings also inspire… awe, closely intertwined with practicality (does this make any sense?). Also, when I read him I feel, well, spiritual…
Mary Roach (1959- )
The only member of this elite group without the “coveted” PhD (as if she needed it… ) she is a prolific science writer with many magazine articles under her belt as well as five great books: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Gulp, and…. Packing for Mars. This latter one my undisputed favorite, just read the part about performing the end result of human digestion is space. Yes, I have the humor of a six-year old. She writes well, she writes “knowledgeably”, and she writes in a very funny way. This is very important to me, as I sincerely think that science is not the exclusive purview of serious academics who solemnly examine the universe. No. Science is meant to be fun and interesting!
There are other examples, but these five are more than enough. I know that I must find my own voice; I have already written a book after all, but always, and I mean always, there is room for improvement; if I had to choose from my heroes abilities, I’d pick:
***Asimov’s “googliness”, unparalleled imagination and book output.
***Sagan’s wonder and desire to fight against entropy, as futile as the effort may be.
***Gould’s encyclopedic knowledge and the ability to integrate disparate disciplines into something surprisingly coherent.
***Wilson’s “awe-fueling practicality” and implicit spirituality.
And last, but by no means least…
***Roach’s joyful and witty erudition.
Not bad, huh?
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