ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Scott Huler

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Scott Huler to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
huler_photo.jpgMy scientific background is all writing; that is, I’m a writer who has always loved science and scientists, but I never practiced advanced science. I’ve been all about getting the word out from the start. All through school I took every science course I could — geology, astronomy, biology, calculus, physics, chemistry — because I loved the power of science and scientific thinking and understanding, but I never doubted I’d major, as I did, in literature. Writing was what I wanted to do.
Now I live in Raleigh, NC, surrounded by interesting science and interesting scientists and never lack for subject matter. I’ve written about — and write about — lots of things, not just science, but even that generalism is a sort of scientific philosophy. The natural philosophers of the 17th and 18th century were in many ways the first true scientists, but they didn’t think of themselves as such — they thought of themselves as people who wanted to know the whys and hows of their world, and they didn’t limit themselves to certain processes or issues. In my work, and my life, I aspire to be like them.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I’ve always wanted to write, so out of college I’ve just sort of made my way towards writing work of one sort or another. That’s let to electronic media as well, doing radio work for NPR and its affiliates and video work on websites and other places. Since I’ve done every newsroom job from copy editor to managing editor and told stories in books, on the radio, and on video, I like to think I can let the story come to me and tell me how it wants to express itself: sound? images? words on paper? When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. I like to try to be more like a tool belt.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate with projects. I’ll list a few projects during which for at least at one moment I thought, “If this is as good as it gets, if this is the best assignment I ever have, I cannot complain.”
— in 1995 as a member of the staff of the News & Observer in Raleigh I joined with staffers of four other papers up and down the East Coast and joined with them to complete a sort of relay through hike of the Appalachian Trail. The N&O was an early adopter of the web, so there was a lot of traffic on the website for that (examples: Going The Distance On A Smokies Trail and Our adventure ends)
— in 1997-98 I spent much of my free time hanging around the garage following a top-level NASCAR race team, trying to understand how the physics lesson of making a car go fast. That too led to a book, but here’s a cool story I did for the Times about what happens when it all goes wrong.
— in 2002-3 I finished two decades of the most desultory research by spending a year on a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan getting to the bottom of the Beaufort Scale of wind force. No, I am not kidding, the Beaufort Scale of wind force. It’s a smashing, poetic, highly observational, descriptive scale of the wind. Long story, but it turned into a book, and the weeks I spent sketching the coast of Montevideo, Uruguay, from the bridge of a hydrofoil or hoisting sail on the barque “Europa” were lifetime reporting highlights.
— in 2004 I skipped out on much of the pregnancy of my first child to spend months tracing the journey of Odysseus from Troy, in Turkey, to Ithaca in Greece, decidedly by the scenic route. I hope the book was good, but I was just glad to be out there.
— in 2008-9 I spent most of my time going to water plants and sewage plants, scrabbling around in storm drains and substations, trying to make sense of all the infrastructure that serves my house and everybody’s house. It was like having my entire work life be the best sixth-grade field trip of your life, for two years. The book is just out.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
grid_cover.jpgAmazingly, for the first time ever, I haven’t just walked away from the topic I’ve finished a book on. There seems to be so much more to talk about in the systems I’ve spent the last years learning about that I’m not quite ready to be done. To that end I’ve spent the last month doing a video project for the city of Raleigh about its brand-new water plant opening May 12 and hoping to do more of the same. That said, I am and will remain a generalist — you never know what the next project will be.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
I’m fascinated by the history of science in our daily lives, whether it’s finding out through the Beaufort Scale that the wind was oil back in the day, powering our entire commerce structure, or that Herodotus and Pliny pointed to aqueducts and sewers as the glory of Greece and Rome, not to the Parthenon Pantheon, the Agora or the Forum. Science is foundational, and I guess in days like these it’s almost thrilling to fight those who believe that when you turn a key and your car starts making noise 100 times out of a hundred or you punch in numbers and a bell rings in your friend’s house a continent away then science is good, but when the exact same process of thinking leads you to conclusions that challenge your beliefs science is bad. That in itself is fundamentally unscientific thinking, and it’s shocking to live in a time when it’s in its ascendance, but at least you don’t have to look hard to find the bad guys.
As a researcher and reporter I both love and hate the web. I love how easy it is to find people who know about something I’m trying to learn about, but I hate it too. Instead of a few local sources, or a few gatekeepers who can lead me where I need to go, I’m faced with a panoply of sources, each of whom has strategically keyworded his or her resume or home page to maximize contacts and so only might actually know about the topic I think he or she should. In some ways things like Google books can let me view, in my home, an amazing source like this one, which I ran across in my research on the Beaufort Scale, but in some ways I preferred it when getting off your butt and getting out in the world was job one of a reporter. Like all technology, you still have to manage it and master it, not the other way around.
But the scientific community makes such a great job of working to get information out by using the web that overall it’s just a treat to have that resource. Though hard to find time to do anything else once you click into it.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
I think I’ve answered that above, in a way. I love the links I get from scientific friends on Twitter, but if I did nothing but check into and respond to those links that would be my entire day. And almost every link is worth following — that’s the problem. And I do need to do more responding — I need to be a more active part of that community. But then who does my work? As an independent writer I used to tell people I spent 40 percent of my time as a salesperson, 30 percent as a dunning agent, 20 percent in office management, and 10 percent in information technology — and in my spare time I did writing work. And that was before the Internet, much less social media. So it’s murderously difficult to both work and blog and Tweet and so forth. But what are the options?
When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?
I really discovered science blogs through Anton Zuiker’s mistersugar.com. I’m in a science writers’ book club with him, and he’s opened my eyes to the nature of blogging and of scientific blogging especially. Science bloggers are such a specific case of people with the right reasons for blogging and such trustworthy sources that they really are an amazing community as well as a resource. I have loved being even such a sort of Kuiper Belt participant. I turn to them for information all the time now. I LOVE deepseanews.com and a blog around the clock, but honestly I find almost anywhere I turn in the world of science blogging I’m lost for hours finding out about stuff I had never even thought to wonder about.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
I would call #scio10 the best conference I’ve ever attended. The session about the future of online communication wondered whether there was any hope for “plain old text blogging” — this at the exact moment that mainstream newspapers are still trying to work out a response to plain old blogging. That makes me feel both hopeless for newspapers and thrilled at the capacities for communication.
But above all #scio10 reminded me what wise people never lose sight of: that “meatspace” is not merely important but the point. With all the Tweeting and blogging and wireless this and Skype that, what brought all those people together was the appreciation of being together. Even with chips in our heads, we’ll remain mammals and real space, real time creatures. I love that #scio never loses track of that, and I think it’s what makes it unique.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. Good luck with the new book and see you soon!

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2 responses to “ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Scott Huler

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