Today we're talking with Dr. Fred Bortz, author of numerous books including Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology and Seven Wonders of Space Technology
FQ: When you were a young man you received your Ph.D. in physics from Carnegie Mellon by the age of twenty-six. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment. When did you make the shift from teaching and research to writing science books for children? Perhaps you’d like to tell us about the transition.
It wasn't a transition as much as a series of discoveries. To succeed in college teaching or research, you need to find an area that you can study more and more deeply and more more narrowly. In other words, you need to be a specialist. I was, and still am, always interesting in finding something completely new.
Another important ingredient in success is focusing your written work on an audience of other people who specialize in the same area that you do. I always preferred to interact with people who were doing something else.
My children's writing began with silly verse and picture-story magazine fiction, because I was looking for a change from my day-to-day work. I finally realized that the more important change was not to get away from science but to write for young readers, especially those who were curious and liked to challenge ideas like I did when I was around 11 or 12.
I didn't become a full-time writer until I was 52 years old and in a job at a university that was about to disappear. I could have looked for another job and ended up with a lot more income, but instead I decided I could afford to follow my creative side. Reviewers tell me that my books are solid scientifically and have some good story-telling. When I visit schools, I can also see that my books change my readers' lives and their way of thinking for the better. That makes me feel richer than I ever could if I had decided to get another job working for someone else.
FQ: Your transition was obviously a successful one as you are still writing books. You seem to have a knack for relaying difficult science concepts to your young audience in a manner that is easy for them to understand. Is this easy for you to accomplish? Can you tell us how you might talk to them about something like a quark?
It depends how you define success. I just loved what I was doing too much to give it up, even though it has been a struggle to earn enough money.
Thank you for saying that I have a knack for connecting to my readers so they can understand some ideas that might seem difficult. Other reviewers seem to agree. The fact is that ideas that seem difficult are usually only different. The greatest ideas in physics, for example, are not difficult if you find the right perspective to view them from. I'm able to figure out what wrong assumptions were standing in my way before I figured something out. Sometimes I have to help my readers get past the wrong assumptions, and sometimes I can just place them on the right path so they never get trapped by a common misconception.
Quarks aren't that difficult to understand if you follow the history of how physicists came to understand matter. The path seems clear when you leave out all the false steps and backtracking that happened while trying to discover that path. Of course, a lot of the fun of learning is to try out a new direction, discover it is wrong, and backtrack until you find a better way. I try to include some of that if I can.
FQ: You are now considered “one of the nation’s leading writers of science and technology for young readers.” It must be enormously gratifying to have become so accomplished in this field. If you were to choose one and only one of your books that you are the most proud of, which would you choose and why?
You're reading my self-advertising, though I think I have actually come close to that level of ability.
Since I'm in the business of changing lives for the better, the books that I am proudest of are the ones with human as well as scientific stories. Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel is part of the "Women's Adventures in Science" biography series, and some of Heidi's personal struggles certainly arose from the fact that she was a young woman making her way in a male-dominated field. But her triumphs and her science have lessons for both boys who are becoming men and girls who are becoming women. She knew what she wanted out of life, recognized her strengths and the obstacles in her way, used her strengths to reach her goals, and then didn't waste any time figuring out what she wanted to do next.
I also wrote a book of profiles called To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Learning Science. It is a set of in-their-own-words profiles of successful men and women who worked on remarkable projects. No one had it easy. I related to Frank Asaro who, like me, helped his father earn a high school diploma at age 65. He also was a nuclear chemist who helped figure out that an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs. Carolyn Shoemaker, who has discovered more comets than any living person, was in her fifties before she became involved in science professionally. She became famous when one of the comets she discovered crashed in Jupiter while the whole world was watching. And Richard Smalley, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry the year after I interviewed him, told me that when he was in high school, no one thought he would amount to much--and neither did he!
FQ: In 2002 you were the winner of the American Institute Physics Science award for your book, Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels. You’ve won many awards, but without a doubt this is one of the more prestigious. This is one award every children’s science writer would love to win. Would you like to toot your horn about this award? We’d love to listen!
The best part of the award for me was the fact that my fellow physicists recognized that my unusual career path had produced something worthwhile. I think they gave it to me more for the subject matter than for how well it was written. Materials science and engineering is a very important field for technology, but even a lot of high school students who are going to college for science or engineering have never heard of it or considered it.
Unfortunately the company that published it soon went bankrupt, and the book never got the attention the award should have brought it. Still, it probably influenced a few students to discover materials science and engineering as a college major or career, and it will continue to influence others as long as it remains in libraries. There's that theme again: changing lives for the better. That's something worth tooting about.
FQ: You say that “science in not about answers but rather about questions and the way we follow them to discoveries.” Can you expound a bit on this statement and give us a couple of examples?
The best answer way to answer this is to point to my book Martian Fossils on Earth? The Story of Meteorite ALH84001. It is about a meteorite that came from Mars and that some scientists think shows evidence that life started on the Red Planet at about the same time it did on Earth. The title of the book and each chapter is a question, including a chapter that asks, "Do All Scientists Agree About the Meaning of These Findings?" Discovering signs of present or past life on Mars would be exciting, and that meteorite certainly is interesting, but we still have many questions left to follow about that rock (and other pieces of evidence) before we can say for certain that Mars is or was a living world.
FQ: In addition to writing, you also make school visits. One of your programs, Our Next Planet: Why, When, and How People Will Settle Another World, is very intriguing. Can you tell us about this program and how it excites your young audience?
I first developed that program when I was invited to keynote the second annual Science and Engineering Expo for the Idaho National Environmental and Engineering Laboratory which was combined with Snake River Roaring Youth Jam in Idaho Falls in 2002. They asked me for something that might interest all ages, so I thought about something that would fire the imagination in the same way that planetarium shows did for me when I was the age of my readers.
I was just beginning to explore planetary science in my books, and I thought back to the way travel to the Moon inspired me in the mid-1950s. That was before a single satellite had been sent into orbit, but the planetarium director, Arthur Draper, was already looking ahead to people landing on the Moon. I quickly realized that by the 2030s and 2040s, when the children in my audience would be building their careers, the US and other nations would be preparing to send people like them to Mars!
I also knew that some engineers were thinking of building Mars bases after that. Even later in the century, the grandchildren of the Mars pioneers might begin the process of terraforming--using technology to make Mars more Earthlike. After 500-1000 more years, Mars might have breathable air, Earthlike weather, lakes and rivers, forests, farms, factories, and cities.
Meanwhile, rocket technology would be improving and people from both planets might start working together to send spacecraft to other solar systems, which we were just beginning to find in the late 1990s. By the year 2500 or 3000, we will certainly know a lot of Earthlike worlds, and we might have the technology to visit one and perhaps even settle there.
I recently updated that talk because we now know about more than 500 other planets, including one that might be a lot like Earth. We are also starting to test new kinds of rockets that could send spacecraft to the stars.
As much as I enjoy giving that talk, I have a new one that might be even better. It is based on my "Cool Science" book called Astrobiology, which is the science of life on other worlds. It includes and goes beyond the question of life on Mars to life elsewhere in the Solar System and on planets and moons in other solar systems.
I call that talk The Truth About Space Aliens: What We Know and Don't Know About Life on Other Worlds. I presented it for the first time in Johnstown, PA, in March 2011, and the school bought copies of Astrobiology for all the 3rd and 4th graders. We had an out-of-this-world good time!
FQ: You have garnered several fans with your work and many of them would like a sneak preview of your next work. Have you got something in the works and would you like to share with us what we can be looking for?
I have completed a manuscript and selected the illustrations for a book based on my "Our Next Planet" talk, but the publisher is slowing its pace of putting out new books, so I don't want to predict when it will appear or name the publisher.
I just wrote a proposal for a book about nuclear reactor accidents. I am hoping some publisher will accept the idea so I can feel comfortable spending a lot of time to do a careful analysis of the news from the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi reactors that were damaged in the recent earthquake and tsunami. In my 1995 book Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure--and Success had a chapter comparing and contrasting the reactor accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. I ended that chapter by saying that nuclear power would become an issue again in my readers' lifetime, and that people will argue about what lessons we should learn from those accidents.
The arguments happened about the way I predicted. The Fukushima reactor failures are changing what we know, but not as much as people think. Those reactors were built according to an old design, and people knew that there was some risk in not replacing them. The new design might not have been damaged as badly and certainly would not have released nearly as much radiation.
I'm starting to study the lessons from Fukushima, and I am hoping that a good publisher will be interested in having me share what I learn with middle graders or young adult readers.