What I’m working on:
I recently finished a piece for NOVA Next that I’d been working on for the last seven months (edited by the amazing Tim DeChant), which chronicles the journey behind BICEP2’s “discovery” of gravitational waves (TBD). The story follows two physicists: Chao-Lin Kuo, who helped design the detector, and Andrei Linde, whose inflationary model predicts gravity waves. The piece ends when Kuo knocks on Linde’s door to tell him the results of the experiment. With this piece, I challenged myself to tell each physicist’s story from his own point of view, which required me to try out an intense style of reporting and new narrative techniques. It’s one of the most rewarding stories I’ve written. I also just finished writing a feature for Nautilus.
I spend a fair amount of time promoting my book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which came out in January, but my main project now is a new book. It’s a biography, so I’m doing a ton of primary-source research—digging through archives, tracking down sources, rummaging through old letters and notebooks. It’s more fun than any job has a right to be.
Lastly, I’m cohosting a new podcast with the awesome science writer and radio journalist Dan Falk. It’s called BookLab and we discuss all the latest and greatest science books. We launched in January, so that’s exciting and very new for me!
Where I work:
I work out of my apartment in Kendall Square in Cambridge, just steps from the MIT campus and the Media Lab. There’s science in the air here. Every day, I walk about seven steps from my bed to my office (also known as my living room) with a pit stop at the coffeemaker. I usually work at my desk, which overlooks the Charles River and the Boston skyline. Working by the water with sailboats drifting by makes me smile every day. I keep an extra desk in my bedroom—for those days when I just don’t feel like going into the office.
Thanks to a circadian rhythm disorder, I keep odd hours. On average I go to bed around 6:00 a.m., which means I don’t get up until 1:00 p.m., though I have a bad habit of checking email throughout my “night.” When I do get up, I take 20 minutes or so to sit with a cup of coffee and read the New Yorker or New Scientist or The New York Times … something with “New” in the name. Then I spend the first half of my day responding to emails, contacting sources, transcribing or researching. Later, once the world around me has gone to sleep, I start writing. When I can’t possibly write any more, I read.
Most productive part of my day:
11:00 p.m. – 5:00 a.m.
Most essential ritual or habit:
Watching an episode of Gilmore Girls. Every. Single. Day.
iPhone 5 and an iPad mini for reading when I travel.
After tearing a ligament in my wrist from typing, I decided to go ergonomic and bought a desktop computer. I work on a 27-inch iMac and I’m a total convert to the big screen.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
For book projects, Scrivener. For phone interviews, Skype with Call Recorder. For in-person interviews, iPhone’s voice-memo app. For podcasting, the Blue Yeti mic. For the five months that my wrist was incapacitated, Nuance’s Dragon. For life, my Nespresso machine.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
- Mmmm, TV.
My reading habits:
My reading is an endless game of free association. Here’s a recent example:
I’m reading The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering. I come across an interesting passage about Warren McCulloch. It becomes of urgent necessity that I read McCulloch’s collected papers. There’s a great introduction to the papers by Jerry Lettvin. An Amazon search for Lettvin turns up An Oral History of Neural Networks. In the oral history, I discover McCulloch wrote poetry. Google finds McCulloch’s poetry at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. A six-hour train-ride later, I stumble on letters between McCulloch and John von Neumann. An Amazon search for von Neumann yields a book called Martians of Science …
I dive into one book and two weeks later emerge from another.
I like to really manhandle my books—highlight, scribble, circle, tab. You can tell I love a book when the pages are falling out.
On a recent whim, I organized my books by color. Now I’m constantly stomping around muttering things like, “Dammit, what color is the new Lethem?!”