Book Review: Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge

Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge is the second non-fiction compilation from editor Max Brockman, following up the earlier essay collection, What’s Next? The topics are as varied as the authors: working scientists from fields as diverse as astrophysics, immunology, computer science, even a new discipline called “experimental philosophy”, which would probably fall under the heading of neuroscience or behavioural psychology (there are several more of those, as well).

Essentially, what Brockman did was get a lot of young, actively working scientists to talk about what’s exciting right now in their field. There’s a balance between the highly topical “look at this cool thing we’ve just discovered” and some of the broader implications of their work. It seems the contributors were given free rein, perhaps actively encouraged, to speculate a bit about what it all means.

I appreciated this larger context. Even though most everything in the book is, as the sub-title suggests, cutting-edge to varying degrees, references to the big picture provide something extra. There’s a sense in this book of being invited to look ahead and ask, well, what’s next? This provides a unifying theme which might be absent in, say, a best of year collection of science journalism. The result is both topical and an historical benchmark: this is us; this is the world — right now.

Kevin P. Hand, a planetary scientist, wants to talk about the next stage of deep ocean exploration — in Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Laurie Santos discusses everything from primate studies to game theory to the economics of consumer behaviour, in order to understand the leaps of illogic that lead to some of our terrible financial decisions. Kirsten Bomblies surveys what’s currently known about plant responses to stress — and what’s still to be determined, if we hope to help both crops and natural ecosystems survive the next century of climate change.

If there’s a weakness to this book, it’s an unevenness in its authors’ abilities to communicate their subjects to a popular audience. Some of the writers are naturals, they get to the essence of their work with a minimum of jargon and a maximum of depth. Others are clearly more used to submitting to academic journals, and their style is similarly technical. The subject matter is undoubtedly interesting, but some readers may find it a struggle to get through some of the more scholarly essays.

Science writing is a balancing act between maintaining interest, clarity, and accuracy. It’s possible to lose your audience in detail whether you’re talking about genetics, string theory, or behavioural psychology. I struggled with an article on cosmology, despite coming from a physics background myself.

But on the whole, Future Science delivers what it promises. It takes us to science’s many frontiers, and gives us a sneak peek behind the curtain. I can’t imagine another single book (well, other than its own predecessor) capable of giving such a broad view of scientific discovery on the cusp, as it stands right now. Not every major open question in the whole of science is covered — that would be unrealistic. But there’s plenty of food for thought here.

(Vintage Books, 2011)

Article first published as Book Review: Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge by Max Brockman (editor) on Blogcritics.

Becoming a Real Writer: Pitching

No matter what kind of stuff you like to write, odds are there is someone out there who will pay you for it (if it’s good enough). Straight news? There’s absolutely a market for that. Political commentary? Yep. Science writing? It’s been one of the shrinking markets the last few years, but as a freelancer, sure, you can still find outlets. Comedy writing, yeah. Features? Definitely.

Of course, you have to find your market. You can do some research and write an article on gardening and sell it, even if you’ve never even kept a houseplant alive, but the closer you stick with what you know, the more likely you are to earn a paycheque that justifies the time you put into it. Not to mention, you know, caring about what you’re writing.

I have a little notebook file with article pitches. I’m looking at science and science fiction magazines that buy non-fiction articles, so I can write about, well, both science and science fiction. I’m looking at education journals, because I have a few articles in mind for that as well. And I’m also looking at a couple of writers’ magazines.

Sometimes you have to write the whole article and then see who wants to buy it. Sometimes they just want your basic idea for the article, and they’ll let you know if you should write it. Of course, it’s often much better to know who you want to write for beforehand, so you can keep publication style guidelines — and more importantly, your audience — in mind during the writing.

Even a news article will have a different focus if it’s addressed to a specific audience, say in a trade journal, compared to a general audience. An article on the employment crisis in education will be very different if it’s written for a magazine that circulates to teachers compared to one read by the general public.


You may have been doing a particular kind of writing “for the love” for years, without even realizing someone might be willing to pay you for it. Some time after I realized I didn’t need to depend on my editors to get me books anymore, I realized I also am capable of getting paid for my book reviews. Maybe not much. Maybe only between twenty and fifty dollars per review, but if I’m reading the books anyway (and already reviewing them so that publishers will provide me free copies), why not get a little pocket change out of the deal?

Back in the summer I was named the writer of the week on the Blogcritics site. Here’s the quote:

With Comic-Con over, it’s time to appreciate the excellent writerly skills of J.J.S. Boyce, who’s written a couple of dozen crystal-clear pieces for Blogcritics on books, movies, and games, many (but not all) centered on science fiction. All you sci-fi fans out there, and anyone who appreciates good critical writing, zip on over to J.J.S. Boyce’s writer page for a sampling of some of the best he, and Blogcritics, has to offer our readers.

So, okay, great. It’s nice to be appreciated. There are almost 1, 000 active writers on the site, which has been in operation for a few years. It’s called “writer of the week” so only about 50 win each year (actually a bit less since some “weeks” stretch to 14 days). I started writing a little before last Christmas, and, as mentioned, I’ve done 20-odd reviews on the site.

There are writers with hundreds upon hundreds of reviews who I’ve seen named “writer of the week” in the months since I was so named, and no doubt there are many more still waiting for their moment in the sun. Most will never get it. I don’t have as much seniority nor am I nearly as prolific as most other recognized writers. So why me?

Because the writing on the site can be spotty. Some writers are great but there are plenty of amateurs. Almost every article I write becomes an editor’s pick, and close to half end up being picked up by other publications that purchase content from Technorati Media (the umbrella under which Blogcritics falls). So a lot of my stuff is being sold, but I’m not getting paid for it.

That’s no one’s fault but my own. I didn’t bother to search out markets because it hadn’t occurred to me. But if anything I write is making money, probably some of that money should go to me. Similarly, if you’ve been writing a regular unpaid comedy column that’s getting major hits for a web site, or you’ve developed a decent following covering medical news for a community newspaper, maybe you ought to consider who else might be interested in publishing your stuff.

But, of course, you have to get ready to pitch it. No one’s going to do it for you. It’s tempting to be a big fish in a small pond, but if you want the satisfaction of breaking into tougher markets, you have to be pro-active about it. As my high school English teacher always said, “Get out there and sell yourself!”

Book Review: The Magician King

The follow-up to his 2009 bestseller, The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s newest novel serves as a self-aware take on the hero’s quest. The Magician King picks up more or less where the previous book left off. Quentin Coldwater and his friends are living in the magical world of Fillory, of which they’ve been crowned kings and queens. And Quentin, being Quentin, is feeling a little restless. Because the thing about happy endings, or, for that matter, even bittersweet endings, is that life isn’t like that. Happily ever after or otherwise, life, so long as you’re in it, keeps on going.

So when a mysterious portal opens up, and dark portents make themselves known, Quentin, at least, is a little bit excited. This is the part where he gets to have an adventure. This is the part where he gets to be a hero. He’ll find out, though, that being a hero is not about winning. Being a hero, Quentin is warned, means being willing to lose. Perhaps losing everything.

The magical college of Brakebills is a distant memory in this novel. However, a secondary storyline parallels the events of the first book, telling us what happened to Quentin’s pre-magic crush, Julia, after she was invited to take the Brakebills entrance exam and failed where he succeeded. We know from the previous book what happened to him: he became a magician; he went on an adventure; he barely gave her a backward glance when she was expelled from Oz. But for whatever reason, the standard memory wipe didn’t work on her. Though she was rejected – along with countless other also-rans – from the world of institutional magic, she didn’t forget her peek behind the veil like they did. And that meant she knew what was taken from her.

Frequently I find myself bored with secondary stories that only serve to enhance or shore up some aspect of the main plot, but The Magician King pulls off the dual narratives where others have fallen flat by the simple expedient of telling two individually excellent tales. The real brilliance, however, is in the way Grossman weaves everything together, linking up with loose threads from the first book and giving us a perspective on both present and past events that we didn’t have before.

As the book progresses, we no longer lose our momentum when we switch perspectives; instead it is as if we are bouncing more and more frenetically between the converging narratives, the tension building to a fever pitch as they meet in the middle. Scenes in this book actually physically quickened my pulse – a rare feat, I assure you.

Like the first book, Grossman’s sophomore effort tackles its subject matter and their implications thoughtfully. Once the wish-fulfillment aspect of a world of magic is satisfied, there are many questions left over. What do information theory and economics tell us about the plausibility of keeping magical information both exclusive and regulated? What does the existence of magic imply about the most fundamental physics: the structure of reality and the birth of universes? Turning the question around, what new spellcasting possibilites might exotic phases of matter hold – plasmas and Bose-Einstein Condensates, say? And if things like dragons and dryads exist, what else might be out there?

Grossman’s smart writing acknowledges questions like these where other fantasies sweep them under the rug. When he describes a spell for the reversal of entropy you get that he knows the significance of the physical law being violated. He approaches comparative religion like an experienced exo-biologist.

It’s hard to believe The Magician King managed to live up to the high standards set by its predecessor. Second books in a series so often underwhelm, perhaps because authors strive to give readers more of the same things they loved in the original. But Grossman has managed to strike a balance, staying true to his story while entering brave new territory. Many of the questions, characters, and perspectives in this book are wholly new, but they still feel like organic outgrowths of those in the previous book. It’s as if all of these new revelations and adventures were present in Grossman’s universe already, just under a bush or around a bend we hadn’t gotten to yet. I’d like to see if this author can manage to keep things as interesting a third time. Certainly I plan to find out.

(Viking, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2011) The Green Man Review

Long Exposure

Apropos of nothing, this extremely cool image, which was not digitally manipulated to look this way (other than, perhaps, adjusting white balances and such). The stars are streaking because of the long exposure time of the camera (probably several minutes, at least). The figures were drawn by the photographer with flashlights. Click on the photo to see the rest of his photo set.

Much in the same way you can draw figures in the dark with a sparkler, by leaving an afterimage in your retina from the bright light, he went into the frame of the photograph, waving a flashlight around to make these patterns, which appear in the final exposure.

How come the light appears in the final exposure, but the blur of the photographer and, indeed, the flashlight itself, do not? Although they were all in frame for the same period of time, the intensity of the light allowed it to leave a lasting impression. An exposure is all about collecting light. A bright light that is present for part of the exposure may contribute as much to the final picture as a less-bright object that is there the entire time.

The Geography of Cooking

How come the instant ramen noodles in Costa Rica are so much better than in Canada? Have they added some Latin spice to the old Chinese stand-by? Or maybe it’s the corn.

Of course, as a rule, Costa Rica is not the place to go if I you want to get good Chinese, Moroccan, or Ukrainian food. Certainly there should be some excellent Costa Rican food, perhaps some decent Cuban, Mexican, or Brazilian, if we do some digging. We’ve done most of our own cooking and not checked out many restaurants so far, but I’ll bet there are some regional gems — if not in our small town, then a bus ride away in San Jose. But we shouldn’t expect much beyond that.

It’s the mixed blessing of coming from a very multi-cultural country to a fairly mono-cultural one. If you were to map culinary traditions on a map of the world, you’d see most countries have one dominant flavour, with perhaps a few odd pockets of nearby traditions (Chinese restaurants in Japan, Chilean in Panama), and then you’d see a place like Winnipeg or New York and virtually every flavour in the world would meet there. So to leave a city like that for a place with few immigrants is to find authenticity, but lose variety.

Even after returning from Asia, I found I could still get good Thai, good (authentic, not Americanized) Chinese, good Korean, and good Japanese food. And of course I’ve enjoyed Salvadorean cooking since before I left. But since we’re not living in a country of immigrants anymore, we’re limited to what we can cook ourselves, and the local cuisine.

That’s not a complaint. When I was in China I embraced Chinese cooking (plus a favourite Korean restaurant, and I occasionally made the trip downtown for Japanese). Here we are trying to embrace Costa Rican cooking. It’s not that we’ll be sick of it after six months. Every culinary tradition includes a fair bit of variety within it. But I’m sure we’ll grow to miss certain things before we get back.

Becoming a Real Writer: Getting Paid for Copywriting

It’s not as easy nowadays as walking into a newspaper office and impressing the editor-in-chief with your spunk. The newspaper and magazine industries have both been in decline for years, a decline that was certainly exacerbated by the financial crisis in 2008, but can trace its roots to the increasing number of people getting their news online, and a certain amount of uncertainty about how to make money this way, and pay their writers at the same time.

If, like me, you don’t have a degree in journalism, or some kind of related education, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get one of these traditional writing jobs, at least right off. Actually, the odds are against recent graduates of those programs, as well. There just aren’t enough staff jobs to go around. But that still leaves freelancing.

Freelancing involves getting paid by the assignment. In fact, many of this work won’t be assigned at all, but written in advance and then pitched to potential buyers. There’s plenty of unpaid work for a skilled writer, but if you’ve been doing this for a few years, and think the copy you produce is of a consistently-high quality, maybe it’s time you got paid for it.

Having said that, if you’re just starting out, you need to take anything that will pay the bills. Don’t sit there starving because you refuse to let your work be published anywhere other than National Geographic (which would probably be about the pinnacle with respect to my writing interests).

There’s a lot of work out there producing ad copy or basic content for informational or business sites. For example, a banking web site may want to hire a publicity team, which will in turn require copywriters, to create a series of articles on the different types of accounts they offer. Informational/instructional sites may want a tremendous volume and variety of material, on everything from cooking tips to financial advice to homework help.

You need two things: pre-existing areas of expertise (or at least solid research skills), and technical writing ability. If they want their copy to be AP style, you need to be able to produce copy in accordance with that style guide. If they want Chicago, that’s what you have to come up with. But when applying to these kinds of jobs, this is where you really take stock of everything else you know, and start using that non-writing experience to get your foot in the door.

Have you ever worked in finance, education, accounting, engineering, with animals, in construction? It’s possible that someone out there wants someone who can write copy on any of these subjects, or many, many more. My science and education backgrounds have both gotten me gigs in the past; more recently, my experience as an investor has gotten me a gig writing about  finance.

It’s all very romantic to say you’re throwing it all away to be a writer, but in reality, nothing should be thrown away. Everything you’ve ever done, including non-writing jobs and training, may be something you can leverage for a particular job. The next time, I can just say I have experience writing about finance, and provide some samples. But this time, I had to draw on knowledge from the non-writing areas of my life.

This is good general career advice. You never know what past job or volunteer experience you can use to help sell yourself for a particular position. A varied CV is a job-seekers best weapon.

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Electricity

This is a story about how Rereko, a fairly ordinary high school student from the advanced world of Electopia, gets sent to Earth for remedial courses in the science of electricity. Her society expects absolutely everyone to know a little something about how electricity behaves, and its more important applications. Since she’s a little bit slow in this subject, a tutour from our own, more primitive planet, may be just her speed. A Tokyo graduate student in electrical engineering, Hikaru, seems like the perfect fit.

Like the other books in this series, The Manga Guide to Electricity aims to break down potentially difficult subject matter into bite-sized, comic book chunks, all wrapped up in an engaging story. While the target audience is individuals interested in the subject matter rather than manga fans only after a fun read, the story provides a natural vehicle for the book to give lots of real-life examples of the subject in question, an endless litany of answers to the unasked question: why does this stuff matter, anyway? As usual, the book features a tutour and a (sometimes reluctant) student.

The dialogue-based format is not only an effective way of unpacking concepts, but also makes it easy to build up a book-length political argument simultaneously: that this information is important and worthwhile even for an average citizen. Plato made Socratic dialogue famous in his philosophical treatises, Galileo appropriated it for the use of scientific education, and Ohmsha and No Starch Press did both of them one better by adding pretty pictures. You almost can’t go wrong.

The focus of this book is on applications. It’s at least as much about basic electrical engineering as it is about electrostatics and electrodynamics. The abstract concepts of electric forces and fields are not really touched on. Point charges don’t come into it. Instead, we jump directly into circuits, explicitly using the analogy of electricity as flowing water: voltage is pressure; current is rate of flow. This is a very useful picture, although there are times it could have been used to greater effect.

The only weakness in this book, from my perspective, is failing to take a little more time to fully flesh out some of the basics. Voltage, current, and resistance are all explained very well. The reader is not simply given a definition, but aided in visualizing the real physical meaning of the concepts. However, the relationship between them is not as well explained. The current is equal to the voltage over the resistance. Why does a higher voltage result in a higher currrent? It’s analogous to increasing the water pressure, forcing it through even faster. Why does an increased resistance lower the current? It’s analogous to constraining or restricting the path, slowing each individual drop of water down.

This and a few other concepts were not sufficiently spelled out, though the formula was introduced. On the other hand, a tremendous number of applications were discussed, although many of them were only roughly sketched out: transformers, generators, semiconductors, diodes, and transistors of many kinds. These thumbnail sketches were appropriately short, and a writer with less of an engineering background may even have left some of them out, but a writer with a pure physics background probably would have spent a little more time on some of the basic concepts, and this is my own background, so I admit my bias.

Still, a solid overview of the topic. I really like the practical, real-life examples that are a hallmark of this series. The very first chapter started by looking at the labels on kitchen appliances, and this was a brilliant way of introducing the topic. And I was quite surprised, I didn’t expect to learn something new in this book, but actually a good chunk of the material was unfamiliar territory for me. I didn’t know that much about the basic physical operations of diodes, transistors, or some of the other types of electrical technologies discussed. It makes me want to learn more about electrical engineering. After all, who isn’t crazy about all the electronic gadgets that make our modern world go round?

(No Starch Press, 2009)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2011) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Physics

Having read and enjoyed nearly all of the entries in the Manga Guide series by Ohmsha/No Starch Press, I’ve been going back to read those ones I missed the first time around. The Manga Guide to Physics is pretty much what it sounds like, covering what most people think of when they hear the word physics: mechanics, which is the physics of motion, force, and energy. Other areas of physics, like electricity, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics, are left to future titles.

The book covers its material in four chapters: Law of Action and Reaction, Force and Motion, Momentum, and Energy. The subject matter is explained via a series of private tutoring sessions between the two main characters, high school students Megumi and Ryota. In the prologue, Megumi, an all-star athlete, has a bad day, losing a tennis match to her arch-rival while she is distracted by thoughts of her poor test performance in physics class. She enlists Ryota, the star science student of the school, to get her back on track academically. It may even turn out that a better understanding of physics could improve her game.

The storyline is simple but good, and the tennis angle provides a good vehicle for illustrating and applying physical concepts. Many people think physics is just a series of formulae, but a mathematical formula is just one way of expressing the behaviour of, and relationships between, objects in the physical world. Visual and graphical representations are also very effective ways of conveying concepts in physics, and The Manga Guide to Physics expertly applies these approaches.

Although the author, Professor Nitta of Tokyo Gakugei University, does not shy away from the relevant equations, even including some (completely optional) calculus-based sections, this book’s focus is firmly centred on conceptual understanding rather than calculation. Typical of this series, the main ideas are introduced via the story, which is illustrated in graphic novel form, while deeper explanations are left to a few pages of text at the end of each chapter. However, while some of the other books in the series include end of chapter practice questions (Manga Guides to Calculus, Molecular Biology, and Statistics, for example), the text-heavy pages in Physics are reserved for derivations and more complicated calculations.

This book does an excellent job of explaining these concepts, however, and showing where the equations come from, even if it doesn’t provide the reader with practice using those equations. Unusually, Nitta starts out with forces, specifically, Newton’s Third Law, discussing details of motion (velocity, acceleration, displacement) later. This approach works well, because it allows the first chapter to be qualitative, rather than jumping straight into the math.

He only touches briefly on force diagrams, but gets the main idea of action-reaction pairs across via thought experiments and Socratic questioning. The use of both equations and different types of motion graphs in the next chapter are explained well through examples in the main body, and would be well-paired with a more traditional textbook’s practice questions. Momentum and energy are also well done, explained first qualitatively, then with numbers.

The Manga Guide to Physics has the potential to be a great resource for the independently-minded student, and its non-traditional topic sequence is an effective alternative to the usual way of doing things. The series’ book on calculus also takes an uncommon, but much superior approach to its topic that I found most helpful in refreshing my memory, and this alternative approach to the physics may also be just the ticket for some students. Sound pedagogy, a fun story, and the natural pairing of a visual medium with a visual topic make for another home run from this consistently strong series.

(No Starch Press, 2009)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2011) The Sleeping Hedgehog