Thursday, December 18, 2008

Born again science writer ?

Recently, one of my professional associations, Canadian Science Writers' Association, invited me to write an article for our newsletter, ScienceLink (Vol 28, No. 4, 2008), on my faith and science beat. Here it is, as it appeared:

Popularizing science in a land of religion

by Denyse O’Leary

My principal beat is science issues of interest to people of faith. Who reads what I write? Mainly religious people who are—or have been—scientists or science teachers, doctors, and clergy. Also, lay people who take an amateur interest in science.

There are quite a few of them out there. For example, when I was an Anglican, the rector of my church had been a biology teacher before he decided to seek ordination. When I became a Roman Catholic in 2005, my priest had a physics degree. My sponsor on that day was an award-winning physics teacher. A friend, who was later received at the same church, has a PhD in the philosophy of science. So I’ve hardly been lonely

My only degree is undergraduate English language and literature (Wilfrid Laurier ‘71). So, how did I get involved in science writing? In 1998, I offered to write about Dolly the sheep (first ewe, then you ... ?) for ChristianWeek. I followed that up with other widely discussed topics like transgenic foods. Then editor Doug Koop suggested that I start a faith and science column, which I write to this day. I cover everything from exciting archaeology finds to current health issues. Sometimes I focus on just-for-fun stuff like the increase in the number of Canadians reporting UFOs ...

One thing about science, there is never a shortage of stories. I sometimes joke that I am a thousand stories behind, but that 700 of them have been reclassified as recent archaeology so I needn’t write them after all. Someone else will eventually dig them up.

I am slow with technical subjects, so I ask scientists to explain what is happening, and keep after them until I understand what they are trying to tell me. By the time it has been simplified to my level, readers will almost always understand it too.

Tips for those who want to try their hand at this beat: First, potential readers tend to be fairly well educated. They often have degrees in both science and religion. So, while one must be lively and concise, there is no need to worry about writing over their heads. Second, scientists who are religious can disagree strongly on almost everything else. (See “never a shortage of stories”, above ... ) Third, you will not get rich, but you will probably have some very rewarding moments. For example, I dedicated my first book, Faith@Science, to my Grade 12 chemistry teacher Irwin Talesnick, and had the pleasure of visiting him and his wife in their retirement as a result.

My most interesting experience was as Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard’s co-author on The Spiritual Brain (Harper One, 2007). We were sent $100 000 and given a year to write a book on a potentially controversial topic: the existence of the soul. I thought for a while and said to Mario, “Here’s how we should handle it: We will simply accumulate all the reasonable evidence that bears on the case, present it in an orderly way, and let people make of it what they will. ”

That, of course, turned out to be a lot of work, especially for me, and we ended up with about seventy-five pages more book than the house had expected. But luckily, many earlier topics on which I had written, such as health, spirituality, and artificial intelligence tied into our broad theme.

So what did I learn from publishing a hard cover? One thing for sure ... that squabbles with the publisher over the subtitle are a very subtle form of warfare. We went through about thirty subtitles before we settled on “A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul.” Also, if audio rights for a book are sold, one must help an actor find out how to pronounce names that one has never even tried to say aloud oneself.

One major change that has affected me is the growing importance of blogs to science writing. I started a blog for each of my last two books so I could update them. It used to be frustrating, to say the least, to read a news story that would make an excellent discussion point - if the book were not already in print Now I just blog on the story, so readers can visit to see what’s new. However, blogging has also become a significant source of income as well. My current focus is to learn more about the best ways to use blogs to complement books.

Denyse O’Leary is a Toronto-based journalist, author, and blogger.