Scientific American FSG Books


The Best Science Writing Online 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012

Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette


Best Science Writing Online 2012 contributors David Manly and Dana Hunter discuss science fiction, cats, and their contributions to the new book

David Manly and Dana Hunter are two contributors to The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Bora Zivkovic. Hunter’s essay, “Adorers of the Good Science of Rock-Breaking” is about, well, breaking rocks, and Manly’s “Mirror Images: Twins and Identity” talks about growing up as an identical twin. Here the science journalists and bloggers got together to talk about each other’s posts, about science fiction, and cats.


David Manly: Hello, Dana!

Dana Hunter: Hi, David.

David: I just read your post and really enjoyed it, but I wonder—what did you do before you became so enamored with rocks?

Dana: I dabbled in a bit of everything—history, philosophy, weaving, horse communication, architecture, other sciences... all for writing science fiction and fantasy. You have to be a lover of knowledge and quite promiscuous to write SF. In my spare time, I also read a lot and play with the cat (risking death all the while). Luckily, I still do most of those things.

David: That’s great! I know that a lot of people question their career paths, but not many people change mid-way (like you and I both did). What prompted such a change?

Dana: I won't say I've changed so much as made course corrections. I'd always meant to be a writer. I'd meant to be a fiction one, but it turns out that being a science writer works, too. I came to geology by way of world-building, and became a geoblogger because other geobloggers decided I did the subject justice. Turns out I love it!

David: What type of research are you currently doing?

Dana: Taking a brief break at the moment, just a desultory bit of Mount Stuart batholith here and horse breeds there for light and fun posts. Soon I'll be plunging back into the May 18th eruption of Mount St. Helens, because I've only just begun to tell that story.

David: What would you like to do?

Dana: What I do now, only more of it: go on trips to geological points of interest, learn to bang on rocks better, write up the experiences. Publish a few books. Free myself of the day job in favor of doing this sort of thing full-time. Play with the cat in between adventures.

David: You write very well, and I can tell your enthusiasm for geology. How do you respond when people say, "Isn't that a boring subject? I mean, what do you do besides look at rocks all day?"

Dana: I laugh and laugh, and then show them a little boring brown rock, and tell them a story about it that makes their eyes pop and their breath catch and their whole perspective change. They never say geology is boring again.

David: What type of stuff do you like to do in your free time?

Dana: Stalk birds. Cook. Play with the cat. (You may have noticed a sort of felid leitmotif running through these answers. She's ancient, and she's terribly homicidal, but I love her dearly.)

David: What is the future like for Dana Hunter? What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?

Dana: Oh, now, that's not a question I can answer. I don't know. I imagine I'll still be writing, but anything could happen. I could chuck this over for an actual career as a field geologist. I could be a crazy cat lady (won't be limited to one once this violent beastie's gone). I could be defunct. I could be anything. Life has a habit of changing dramatically without any warning at all. I mean, ten years ago, I certainly wouldn't have guessed I'd be published in The Best Science Writing Online and writing for Scientific American! Now, my questions to you: Your Open Lab piece is all about identity. Do you see identity as something that becomes set with just minor adjustments as we reach adulthood, or as something that can change fairly drastically (excepting illness and injury)?

David: I think identity is a spectrum that develops every day of our lives, but is never set in stone. That said, as a kid is when it is most pliable. As adults, your identity is like an old shoe – warm, comfortable and a true representation of who you are.  But, it absolutely can change! I think our experiences as a child build a framework, or scaffold, that our personality builds upon. And every day we add and remove pieces, until it is a mosaic representation of who we are. Kind of like a personality LEGO set.

Dana: We couldn't be more different—you're an identical twin, I'm not only a singleton, but also an only child. Have you observed differences between the ways singletons and twins take on the world?

David: Identical twins, such as my brother and I, create such strong friendships as young children that they become inseparable. And, when you have such a close friend at such a young age, it becomes difficult to make other friends. After all, why make the trouble of making new friends when you have an almost carbon copy of yourself down the hall? But my parents knew about that, hence why they put us into separate grades from such a young age in school. It forced us to step outside our comfort zones and make new friends, for which I am grateful. Though, at the time, I remember not being exactly thrilled at the idea.

Dana: If you could magically expunge one singleton question forever, which would be the question that never again got asked?

David: Oh jeez, there are so MANY! “Who’s older?” would be a good one, but since I have a bit of an explainer associated with it, it is ok. And it is a great conversation starter! There is also “Can you feel each other’s pain?” which is just silly. But if I had to pick one, it would be, when asked in surprise, “Are you guys TWINS?”

But we have come up with some witty retorts … like “What? Oh, you can see him? I thought he was my invisible friend!”

Dana: So you were a lab guy, now you wield pens instead of pipettes. Why journalism?

David: For most of my life, I wanted to be a scientist working with animals. Other than a few deviations into being an actor, science was always my first and only career goal throughout high school. And in university, I loved it. Even when the classes were hard, I enjoyed it immensely. But in my last year when I was working with Xenopus frogs for my thesis, I had a bit of a realization. While I loved learning about science and doing experiments, I was not the biggest fan of sitting at the lab bench for weeks/months/years doing the same chemical tests or data analyses. So, it was actually my sister who mentioned that since I wrote for the university paper (purely to beef up my rsume) and ended up enjoying it, that maybe I should consider going into journalism. And so I thought about science journalism, where I could continue learning about science and be able to tell interesting stories to others about the amazing research and discoveries being made.

Dana: What gave you the courage to switch careers mid-stream?

David: A combination of my sister, my thesis supervisor, undergraduate supervisor and my family. It was definitely a tough call to make, as I loved strict science so. But ultimately, I believed it was the right call for me at the time, though my heart will always bleed science.

Dana: Do you foresee a third career? If you could choose a third, without worry about expense, qualifying, or any other barriers, what would it be?

David: Hahaha, I’ve probably done enough career-switching at this time in my life. But, there are a few ideas running through my mind: acting (since I used to act in musicals as a child), paleontology (from my absolute obsession with dinosaurs from a young age), and educating students about science. But, the lab bench still is an option. You never know, right?

Dana: What type of stuff do you like to do in your free time? Not that we writers have any, but, you know, theoretically.

David: Like most writers, I probably spend an unhealthy amount of time reading. I am a voracious reader. I also love the simple act of writing (I am currently writing a science-fiction novel as well, entitled The Black), as well as watching moves, television shows, and host of other stuff if I ever get the time.

Dana: That’s fantastic! I had no idea we shared a passion for SF writing.

David: It is always nice to meet another fiction writer! Speaking of fiction, I actually must go and deal with some “real world” difficulties, but it was a pleasure talking with you!

Dana: You too, and thank you!

David: Cheers.

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