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Mark Wolverton - Five Way Interview

Mark Wolverton is a science journalist, author, dramatist, and 2016-17 Knight-MIT Science Journalism Fellow. He writes for various national and international publications including WIRED, Nature, Undark, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Scientific American, American Heritage, The Atlantic, and Air & Space Smithsonian. He has also worked with the NASA Ames History Project, Argonne National Laboratory, MIT, the Franklin Institute, and the NASA ISS Science Office. His books include A Life in Twilight:The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Science of Superman. His latest title is Splinters of Infinity.

Why science?

As someone who was enthralled from a very tender age by 1950s science fiction movies, television shows such as Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and The Outer Limits, and the written works of authors such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, it wasn't much of a leap to become fascinated by science - the reality underlying the fiction. Although I worked as a fiction writer for years in various media, it was a natural progression for me when I decided over twenty years ago to change my focus from fictioneering to nonfiction science writing. Carl Sagan once observed that we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. I like to think that working as a science writer allows me to make some small contribution toward addressing that problem. 

Why this book?

After writing two books in a row dealing directly with nuclear weapons (not to mention my Oppenheimer book which was at least indirectly related to the topic), I was consciously seeking a change of pace. I found the subject of cosmic rays most appealing because it had a sort of lyricism, a poetry, a beauty, and was also more "pure science" than I've done before, yet still with a historical aspect. And it's definitely more positive and uplifting, rather than the gloom and doom and darkness of nuclear war and weaponry. Plus I liked the idea of writing about astronomy and astrophysics, because I haven't had as much chance to do that as I'd like. The book also provided an opportunity to delve into the nuts and bolts of doing science, both the neat and idealized world of lab work and data collection and the messy human side of personality clashes, professional rivalries, and how it's all influenced by press and public attention.

Why did cosmic rays capture the public (and press) imagination so strongly?

I think it was something of a perfect storm of different influences coming together: the flood of revolutionary scientific discoveries ranging from the scale of the universe down to the structure of the atom, along with the burgeoning influence and prevalence of mass media, coupled with the religious sensibilities of early 20th Century America, made people both awed and intimidated by humanity's place in the universe. That all made the notion of enigmatic radiation impinging upon the earth from somewhere unknown out in space fascinating and deliciously scary. Especially when eminent scientists such as Millikan and Compton seemed to promise that discovering the ultimate source, precise nature, and behavior of cosmic rays might be the answer to just about everything. The mystery and romance of the cosmic ray phenomenon struck a strong chord in the American public mind and made it an irresistible subject for newspaper editorials, armchair philosophers, religious sermons and tracts, whimsical humor, faith healers, advertisements, medical quacks, comic books, movie serials, and every other area of popular culture. Some touted cosmic rays as a source of unlimited energy, terrible "death rays," or universal healing. Everyone, from the citizen in the street to bishops and cardinals to scholars to humorists to football coaches, had something to say about it all. The cosmic ray grip on the popular imagination in the 1920s and 1930s was comparable to the contemporary public fascination for black holes, dark matter, and quantum physics.

What’s next? 

While continuing with my usual freelance work, I'm allowing the book writing muse to lie fallow for a while. I have a few vague ideas I'm exploring, but nothing definite as yet.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I wouldn't exactly use the word "exciting," but I've been rather pleased and encouraged by the unexpected huge popularity of Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" film. And hopeful that its success heralds a fresh interest and concern in the vital issues addressed in the movie, especially the ever-growing threat of nuclear proliferation and war. (But then again, it probably won't.)


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