Soapbox for Puzzle-Solving: Interview with Tom Levenson

Tom Levenson is the author of three cool books so far: Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science, Einstein in Berlin and Ice Time: Climate, Science, and Life on Earth and has recently taken the science blogging world by storm with his new blog, the Inverse Square. We finally got to meet at the second Science Blogging Conference four weeks ago.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real Life job?
I’m Tom Levenson – and my career feels to me much more as a series of happy accidents than anything that could have been planned out. I left college a long time ago with a degree in East Asian Studies and sort of an intention to be a foreign correspondent. My first year out of college, bumming around in Manila, I got a stringer’s job writing features for Reuters. My only problem was that I had never studied the Philippines, didn’t speak the local languages and knew nothing of the ins and outs of daily life there. But I was lucky enough to find science writing – or rather to have it find me. An international coral reef biology conference led me to writing about environmental issues there – and I found that (a) stories that start from a foundation of verifiable observations about the world are very satisfying; and (b) that a story about science can lead to all kinds of other insights – what people do when confronted by certain kinds of facts tells you a lot about those people, their place and time, and so on.
That probably tells you that my formal science background is near zero, though I did do a fair amount of history of science as an undergraduate. Science-and-history is still probably my first love – my three most recent books (one still gestating) are all history-centered, and even my first, warning of climate change, had a strong historical strand running through it. I got to books after about four or five years writing on for weekly or monthly magazines – mostly Time and Discover – and then developed a parallel career as a science documentary guy, working for the PBS series NOVA for several years, and then setting out on my own as an indy doc producer. It’s a completely different mode of communication, but I have found that making films has had an enormous and very positive impact on my prose.
Those two tracks have led me to what is now my day job: professing science writing and film making at MIT. The best part of that is that I get to spend every day surrounded by people who really believe in the power of rational thought and sustained effort to make a difference in the world. The worst part – by far –is grading papers.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
A better writer. I want to achieve the kind of gorgeous precision I find in a few places: some of Cormac McCarthy’s pure description. Eudora Welty’s ear and eye. Lots more, really – what I love is that moment when words become transparent to experience. …I’d like to be a real photographer, and not just a snapshot guy…and in the realm of true daydreams: I’d like to be really physically fit, for one last time before senescence.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I did my best to ignore blogs for quite a while. Given my all-star status as a procrastinator, the last thing I needed was another clearly legitimate way not to sit down to my writing desk. But I started with the political blogosphere around the 2004 election, and found science blogging soon after, looking for writing that would not remind me of the pain of that November.
Favorites include a lot of the usual suspects…I use the Science Blogs front page to guide me to specific posts across a wide range of blogs – that’s how I picked up the delightful poetry thread Shelley Batts started at Retrospectacle and John Wilkins extended at Evolving Thoughts. (And I found out about Shelley’s writing while at the Conference, so I guess the answer to that part of the question is yes). I check in with Pharyngula fairly often, especially when there is a good comment rant going. I like to keep some nose in physics news, so Cosmic Variance and Cocktail Party Physics come up on the screen fairly often. But I graze a lot – and I use blogs to lead me to other blogs as much as possible. That’s how I found Cosma Shalizi’s really sharp Three Toed Sloth, for example.
Levenson%20interview%20pic.jpgYou started blogging relatively recently, but apparently imediately “hit the groove”, so to speak. Do you think it takes a certain personality to become a good blogger?
Yes – but it’s not really one kind of personality, I think. I look at someone like PZ Myers, who, as I write this, has six posts up in the last twenty four hours. I get tired just looking at that kind of productivity, and I have no idea how he does it.
I write relatively slowly. I do put up some short, quick stuff that hits my this-is-odd sensor, but most of what I come up with are informal essays, medium long in blogospheric terms. (I go for 500-1000 words – a far cry from my MIT colleague Henry Jenkins, who thinks little of going on for several thousand words, but not like Atrios/Duncan Black either).
The trick and the pleasure for me in blogging as opposed to my really long form writing comes in finding one fact that leads to an idea that in turn permits a twist in either story, argument or both. Blogging this way plays to a couple of my personality traits – the soapbox impulse, and puzzle-solving aspects of writing. Jennifer Ouellette said at the conference that she uses her blog as a writing lab. I think that’s right, at least for me too. I get to play here.
You are writing your fourth book right now. What is it about?
I’m writing a book about one key episode (at least I think it is) in Isaac Newton’s life. Between 1696 and 1699 Newton worked as a kind of upper-mid level civil servant, running the Royal Mint. His duties ranged from doing time-and-motion studies of the process of making coins to chasing and prosecuting counterfeiters. My book follows one such case. As that story unfolds, the book uses Newton’s life as a cop as a way to get into much more about his work, his methods, and what it was like to live through a time marked by revolutions in science, economics.
What are your plans for the future (at least what you are willing to disclose) in your life, work and blogging?
Life – much the same as now: work too hard, play with my delightful son, try to see more of the world and so on.
Work – I’m starting up a new film project that is going to try and meld broadcast and web to do my part to push the documentary form kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat. (That’s me and everyone else in the business trying to figure out that problem. I’ve got a couple of books in mind to follow on Newton – one that picks up directly where my current project leaves off, with a look at fraud, murder and the birth of modern economics, and two more that diverge a little more from my Newtonian stem.
Blogging — Inverse Square occupies as much blogging energy as I can muster right now. I want to focus on refining its voice and sharpening up my sense of what to cover there for the next few months. All the same, I do have a structured blog project I want to start up soon – but until I’m ready to roll with that, the less said…
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did, a new friendship – 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?
Easily the most important quality of the Conference for me was its un-Conference-ness. Coming in as a reasonably grizzled old-media type, I was struck by the sense of a common purpose across the science blog community that made itself felt in the rolling discussion/argument format of sessions. That quality carried over into the conversations in the halls and the bar.
I’m not sure if anything actually changed my views about science communication – my biggest worry after a quarter of a century committing same is that we may mostly be preaching to the choir. Blogs probably help expand the reach of good science to a public that may not know they are interested in it – but other blogs can do so for crap science as well. But I think I came away from the conference believing that the capacity for a community to hone its arguments through blog post to blog post conversation is very valuable, because in the end a way of exploring the world that works will trump ones that don’t.
And the other thing is that the conference was simply fun. I count a number of new friends out of the experience — Jennifer Oullette, for one, a bunch of the Science Blogs crew of course, among them James Hrynyshyn, Abel PharmBoy, Shelley Batts, Tara Smith and Dave Munger – not to mention one Bora Zivkovic. It was good to renew my acquaintance with Chris Mooney; and meeting Eric Roston allowed me to resume an old love of the carbon cycle – but while the list goes on, the point is that the Conference brings together a couple of hundred people all of whom are engaged in some form of common enterprise. That’s exhilarating.
It was so nice seeing you at the Conference and thank you for the interview.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


4 responses to “Soapbox for Puzzle-Solving: Interview with Tom Levenson

  1. The conference not only gave me a chance to meet Tom and field some of his questions during one of the sessions but it has also led to an ongoing dialogue with him that I am finding quite enriching.
    Without the community of science bloggers, I doubt seriously that a regular old lab pharmacologist would have been able to get any bandwidth with such an accomplished writer and journalist as Tom. The connections we are making across fields and disciplines are incredibly enriching and I look forward to seeing the results of these hybridizations.
    Thanks for the insights, Tom (and Bora).

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