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Tech Q&A

George Johnson

Describe your latest project.
Science in the twenty-first century has become industrialized. The experiments we read about in the papers — sequencing the genome, proving the existence of the top quark, discovering a new planet by analyzing the wobble of a distant star — cost millions of dollars and generate terabytes of data. Research teams have grown to the size of corporations.

I love writing about these things, but in the last few years I've felt a need to get back to basics, to return to the days when the most earthshaking discoveries came from individual pairs of hands. From a single mind confronting the unknown. These experiments were designed and conducted with such straightforward elegance that they deserve to be called beautiful — in the classical sense. The logical simplicity of the apparatus, like the logical simplicity of the analysis, seems as pure and inevitable as the lines of a Greek statue. Confusion and ambiguity are momentarily swept aside and something new about nature leaps into view.

The equipment itself was also beautiful. My office has become filled with elegant old scientific apparatus — high-voltage Ruhmkorff coils, Geissler tubes, Crookes tubes. I fire them up and watch them glow, trying to get a visceral sense of this weird stuff called electricity.


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Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I'd pick my 11th-grade creative writing teacher, Richard Ness, at Highland High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He didn't coddle us. On the first day he gave us a long reading list that included Updike, Cheever, Nabokov, Sartre, Malamud, Camus — the best of 20th-century literature. If we intended to be writers, he insisted, we first had to learn to read. He'd read our own efforts aloud, mocking what was bad. His rare words of praise were worth everything.

If you were to ask me about college I would say Tony Hillerman, who was chairman of the journalism department at the University of New Mexico. (He had just published Dance Hall of the Dead and wasn't really famous yet.) In his nonfiction writing class I learned that one can use the same techniques as a novelist to help capture the essence of what is true. He had us read Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese. For my final I consumed half a bottle of wine and poured forth with a gonzoish lamentation on breaking up with my girlfriend. "You write better drunk than most students do sober," Mr. Hillerman scrawled on the paper. "A+."

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I hadn't heard of the Geek Test but I just googled it and answered their questions. I came out on the low end — moderately geeky tendencies or something like that — which makes me question the validity of the test. I mean, here I am with my own domain complete with my own self-installed mail and webserver...I wrote a Unix shell program to check and record the Amazon ratings for each of my books several times a day...I have Ethernet throughout the house, and I put in the physical layer myself, crawling around in dark spaces with Cat-5 cable and a wire crimping tool. But apparently, to be truly Geeky, according to whomever designed the Geek Test, you have to watch a lot of television and play video games.

Chess or video games?
Neither. I wish I played Go.

What do you do for relaxation?
I hike in the mountains east of Santa Fe, tinker with electronics, and read fiction.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Probably a tie between Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and The Boys' First Book of Radio and Electronics.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Nuclear and solar energy. Tying our fate to coal and oil has been a disastrous mistake both politically and environmentally.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I started to say Isaac Newton, but I'm not sure I'd want to risk getting the plague. So maybe one of the 19th-century electrical pioneers like William Crookes or J.J. Thomson. They lived in an age when electricity was as mysterious as dark energy is now. Crookes thought that the glowing cathode rays in his vacuum discharge tubes was ectoplasm.

÷ ÷ ÷

George Johnson writes regularly about science for the New York Times. He has also written for Scientific American, The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Slate, and Wired, and his work has been included in The Best American Science Writing. He has received awards from PEN and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his books were twice finalists for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize. He is a co-director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, and he lives in Santa Fe.

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