The Case of the Curious Question

More Musings on a Career in Science Writing

A few years ago I was at a conference about communicating astronomy to the public and ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in probably 15 or 20 years, back when we were both Young Turks in our community.  We’d served on some committees together in various groups we belong to but really hadn’t chatted or kept up with each other recently. So, we had a good time catching up on each others’  lives and accomplishments.

My friend asked me what I’d been doing lately, and as I’d just finished working on some exhibit materials for Griffith Observatory and was about to start on the exhibits for the California Academy of Sciences, I described that work.  We swapped some tall tales about exhibit designers and curatorial committees, and then got to talking about writing books.  I’ve written and/or edited several astronomy books over the years since I worked with this colleague, and apparently this person wasn’t aware of the work I’d done. Nor was my colleague aware I’d gone back to grad school, worked at Sky & Telescope, or doing video projects about astronomy, or been teaching some workshops in script writing for planetarium folk. Totally understandable — we’re both busy people and don’t always have time to keep up on everybody we know all the time.

After I’d heard about my friend’s latest work and I’d described all I’d done, there was this sort of quiet moment as we both caught our breath. Then came a sort of plaintive question, “So, tell me Carolyn — how is it that YOU have gotten to do all this interesting work?”

It was a curious query and I had to think about it a moment. It’s like one of those questions you get during a job interview and the interviewer lobs it out there as much to find out how you’ll react to it as they do to find out the answer.  Was my friend truly curious? Or, working from knowledge of me when I was younger and still starting out as a writer?  Had a couple of decades of writing, graduate school, and more writing flown by so fast that I and my friend hadn’t realized it?  I suspected that curiosity was really driving the question, so I replied, “Well, I’ve gotten to be really good at what I do and people recognize that. But, you remember back when I first started, I was going to become the best science writer I could be!”

It sounded really self-serving, but my friend nodded sagely and agreed and then said, “Well, you’ve earned every bit of it. Now I have to go read some of your work and see what I can learn from it.”

That was a couple of years ago, but I still think about that conversation. I like to write about science in as many venues as I can — as my friend Kelly Beatty said at dinner recently, “You’re omnivorous” when it comes what I write about and where my work appears. And, that’s cool. It wasn’t quite where I set out to be described as when I was a beginning science writer, but it has been an adventure to be a science writer and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

One Comment

  1. changcho

    Nice story – it is also good to hear you will be doing stuff (astronomy, I presume?) for the California Academy of Sciences. I took my kids there earlier this year and, while the Cal Academy of Sciences is pretty cool, I hardly saw anything to do with Astronomy. I was hoping to see something, given that it is the international year of astronomy…but like I said, the closest thing to Astronomy we saw was the pendulum, which btw we could not even catch it toppling a peg because they were very adamant that they close at (the rediculously early time of ) 5:00 pm!

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