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, but couldn’t get through A Tale of Two Cities without groaning.
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.