When I was a kid, my father took me to the roof of the house one night, and showed me where the stars were. He also gave me a very important Christmas gift in 1978: a set of four books. Three were by Isaac Asimov: Foundation and Empire, Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids, and Fantastic Voyage. The fourth was A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony.
Those four books were my first “grown up” novels — at least they are the first I remember, and I still have that same copy of Fantastic Voyage.
Though I loved reading, I hated English class by the time I was in high school. Dickens, Melville and Hawthorne was never as fascinating to me as Ursula LeGuin, Asimov or Heinlein — or for that matter, Carl Sagan’s non-fiction. I read 400-page novels like Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle and Jack Williamson’s Seetee Ship/Seetee Shock in days.
Science fiction led me to science. Which made me want to be an astronomer. Which led to my signing up for physics as my college major.
I never finished that physics degree. The kid who tolerated English, disliked French and saw Spanish as a necessary evil got sidetracked by language, of all things. I got interested in how people communicate. Languages were like a kind of secret decoder ring; how do you put all those sounds together to make meaning? Why are some writers in English so good? What makes language feel the way it does?
I wasn’t much of a physicist (the final blow was differential equations and “bra-ket” notation). But I found that I was pretty good at stringing words together. I covered cops, did some time as a journeyman reporter in small towns and finally ended up writing about finance and Wall Street.
At a certain point I asked myself what I really wanted to do. The love of science never really left me; I was one of the few reporters I knew who could do math. Which led me back to science, and technology.
But it still wasn’t enough. I wanted to understand more about the stuff I covered. So I went back to college, taking undergraduate classes again for the first time in years. Once again I struggled with the math, slogging through differentials and linear algebra, spending more than one late night on problem sets in mechanics, electricity and magnetism. I went beyond what I’d done the first time around to the mysteries of quantum mechanics.
Coming back to science was like hearing a half-forgotten language again. There was a beauty in it that still moves me. This time, I got the physics degree — and I hope it makes my work better.
Scientists and reporters are kindred spirits — both want to know more about the world. That’s the best part of what I do.