By Mark Alpert
Writing fiction is fun, but it’s also great to do something else for a change. Yesterday I visited Princeton, my alma mater, to attend a conference on string theory. String theory, of all things! This stuff is so mathematically complex I can’t even pretend to understand it, and luckily I don’t have to. My alumni magazine asked me to write a “casual piece” about it. I’m going to write five lighthearted paragraphs about the scientists who are struggling to understand the universe.
Actually, that’s a perfect assignment for me right now. I’m about 25,000 words into my next novel and I don’t want to get sidetracked by writing a long, serious magazine article. On the other hand, writing 500 words about the quirks of genius physicists is a welcome distraction.
And you can definitely reap some benefits from writing both fiction and journalism. I gave up my full-time job at Scientific American six years ago when I got a contract to write thrillers, but I’ve remained a contributing editor at the magazine. A couple of months ago I contributed an item to the magazine’s website about a scientist at NASA who’s trying to build a real warp-drive engine, like the one that propels the Enterprise in all the Star Trek episodes. This silly little piece got more than 8,000 “like’s” in 24 hours.
I’ve also done a bit of book editing on the side. I’m on the editorial board of Science and Fiction, a series of novels and works of literary criticism published by Springer. I get a chance to read manuscripts and make suggestions for improving them.
I don’t do these things for the money. I get only nominal fees for this work and sometimes nothing at all. No, I do it because I want to keep one foot in the world of journalism. Although I love the fantasy of fiction, I don’t want to lose touch with reality.
And you can learn some fascinating things when you hang out with geniuses. Did you know that Chinese scientists are seriously considering building a gigantic particle collider, a machine so huge it’ll dwarf Europe’s Large Hadron Collider? This is big news in the physics community.
On Monday, though, I’m going right back to the novel. I have some new ideas for the book, ideas I gleaned from the living, breathing world.