A Day in the Life of George Musser

For nearly 15 years, George Musser was a senior editor at Scientific American focusing on astronomy and fundamental physics, but also covering topics from child psychology to arms proliferation. He thought of himself as the magazine’s Mars correspondent, although tight budgets stopped him from taking up his post. He left the Sci Am staff in 2012 to write his second book, Spooky Action at a Distance, and do a Knight Fellowship. Since then he has been a freelancer, still writing for Sci Am, but also NautilusQuanta, and other wonderful publications. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @gmusser.

 

Adrianne Mathiowetz

George Musser

What I’m working on:

I’m between big projects at the moment—how else would I have time to respond to these questions? But I’m especially fascinated these days by the interplay among physics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. The inspiration for neural networks has come at least as much from physics (such as models of magnets) as from actual neurons. Going the other way, the deep questions of the mind are relevant to physics—any observational science needs to spell out what it means to observe.

Where I work:

I live in suburban New Jersey—a.k.a. the Left Bank—and have been working out of home for the past several years. Before, when I was commuting into Manhattan every day, I griped about New Jersey Transit and the downsizing of office space. By the end, the corporate overlords had decided that we creative types weren’t worthy of so much as a bookshelf. Now that I’m freelance, I’ve got plenty of bookshelves, an antique Japanese floor desk so I can spread my papers in a big semicircle around me, and a basement lab. But I miss the collegiality of the office. Can’t win.

Daily routine:

Wake up, check email, eat breakfast, walk to a coffee shop for morning cappuccino, return home for lunch, spend the mid-afternoon lull doing things that don’t demand much mental focus, greet my daughter coming home from school, and Uberdad her where she needs to go. After dinner is another productive time for me. Naturally, this routine is more honored in the breach than the observance.

Most productive part of my day:

As they say in Scandinavia, there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes. At least in principle, there’s no unproductive time of day, only a mismatch of task to mental state. In the morning and evening, I have the urge to produce, so that’s a good time to write. In the afternoon or late at night, my mind wants to absorb, so that’s reading time. The trick—not always achievable—is to ride these diurnal cycles.

 

deskCourtesy of George Musser

Musser’s floor desk.

 

Most essential ritual or habit:

Nothing inspires a writer more than the conviction that someone else got it wrong. So if I ever find myself wondering what to say, I read something that is bound to provoke a reaction, and I’m off.

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Mobile device:

Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPad Air. I mix Apples and Androids—like particle and wave, they have complementary frustrations.

Computer:

MacBook Pro

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Starting with my second book, I’ve been using plain-text editors—the Notebooks app on my iPad and TextWrangler on my MacBook—for almost all my writing. They put more text on the screen than Word or Scrivener and let you manage a hierarchy of note files. I port text to Word only when sending it to an editor. For archiving journal articles, I use Papers; for deferred reading, Pocket; for video-editing and animation, Adobe CC.

Courtesy of George Musser

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

My time-management problem isn’t procrastination so much as perfectionism. I totally overreport stories. I think that’s an occupational hazard of physics reporting, especially—it’s so easy to get things wrong that you habitually overcompensate.

My reading habits:

Ouch, that’s a sore point! I figured that, going freelance, I’d do all that reading I never seemed to have time for while on a magazine staff. But I didn’t count on losing the commute as protected reading time. I was guaranteed to get through The New Yorker, The Economist, and all those saved Pocket links. Now I have to make a conscious effort, and still don’t read as much as I’d like to.

I never used to read in bed—thought it would be bad sleep hygiene. A couple of years ago, though, I started, and now I wonder why psychologists ever thought it was bad hygiene. If anything, reading a novel puts me to sleep. I mean that in a good way: Immersing myself in a fictional world displaces whatever had been in my mind.

Sleep schedule:

Midnight to 8:30 a.m.

 

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