In college I studied theater history, and had to write many long research papers. Learning how to structure a research project and use primary materials proved invaluable in all my later work. I like to think I’ve picked up a skill or two since those days, but the...
People often speak of drawing “a line in the sand,” meaning a boundary that cannot be crossed without serious consequences. Next week Skipper Rich Wilson will cross a line in the water. Although no one can see that line threading through the ocean waves, still the...
I write in the early mornings, from about 7am until about 11am or noon. You have to be really disciplined to be a writer, since you're on your own all the time, but once you get the hang of it, it works ok.
I have spent my entire professional life writing. Beginning fresh out of college as a technical writer for IBM, I moved quickly into journalism in January 1970, just in time for the first Earth Day. My two all-time favorite full-time jobs were as science writer for the Cornell University News Bureau, where my beat included everything from astronomy to veterinary medicine, and staff reporter in the Science News department of The New York Times, covering psychology and psychiatry. My most unforgettable assignment for the Times required me to live twenty-five days as a research subject in a “chronophysiology” laboratory at Montefiore Hospital, where the boarded-up windows and specially trained technicians kept me from knowing whether it was day outside or night.
For twenty years I wrote freelance for numerous magazines, most notably Harvard Magazine, Omni, Science Digest, and Discover, as well as Audubon, Life, and The New Yorker. I saw my first total solar eclipse in 1991, as a columnist with Travel Holiday, and attended Space Camp for an article in the retirement magazine New Choices.
I was born June 15, 1947 and grew up right near the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, so that I could walk to either by myself from an early age. My best academic credential is undoubtedly my diploma from the Bronx High School of Science (class of 1964). My home life provided excellent career preparation, since my mother had trained as a chemist, and no one in my family thought it odd or unusual for a girl to be interested in science. Both my parents loved to read, convincing me by their behavior that the best way to hold someone’s attention was with a book.
The publication of Longitude in 1995—and its unexpected success—turned me into a full time author of books. I greatly enjoy the more in-depth research required for book-length projects. Someone once said to me, “I would hate your job. It’s like writing one college term paper after another.” That’s exactly what it’s like, and also what I love about it. People may have the impression that book tours and public appearances are the highlights of an author’s life. I certainly enjoy those events, and am flattered both by my publishers’ willingness to send me on tour and readers’ eagerness to come meet me. But writing is really about sitting alone in a room, and the most exciting moments occur in that room, with no one else as witness, in the small moments of the day when the work is going well.
In recent years I have very much enjoyed teaching science writing, first at the University of Chicago in 2006, at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, in 2011, and from 2013 to 2016 at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts as the Joan Lieman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer.