Tell us about your career(s) and what led you to write children's non-fiction?
I have had two different careers, one as a scientist and one as a writer for young readers. I studied physics in college, and I enjoyed it so much that I kept studying until I had earned a Ph.D. At that point, if I wanted to keep learning, I had to go to work and learn things that my employers were willing to pay for.
One of those things was how to compute what happens inside a nuclear reactor core. I did that for three years. I could have continued, but I am the type of person who likes to jump from one project to another, so I left to work for another company in another industry for three more years. Then I went to a university, where I switched projects several times over fifteen years, finally ending up in science education and outreach.
After one more short hop to a different university, I realized I would be happiest working on my own as a writer. That was 1996, and I have been learning about as many different science subjects as I can. The best part is I can share what I learn with young readers who get as excited about them as I do.
Why is non-fiction so important for kids?
First of all, I'll rearrange the standard librarian's categorization and include most plays and poetry under fiction, unless they are written to be specifically factual. Also it is important to distinguish nonfiction books for kids and textbooks. Textbooks cover a lot of territory but rarely go very deeply into any topic. That means they can't really satisfy young readers' natural curiosity or their imagination.
Fiction allows readers to exercise their imagination by exploring plausible human situations. Nonfiction exercises both imagination and curiosity by exploring factual material, real human relationships, the real world, and other real scientific and natural phenomena. That's why nonfiction takes up so much more space in libraries.
But as a writer, I also recognize the power of story, and so I make a point of using good story-telling techniques to capture and challenge my readers. That is certainly the case in Meltdown!
Were you a huge reader growing up and what were your favorite books?
Unlike most authors, I was not a "huge" reader. I enjoyed reading and literature as ways to learn, but I especially appreciated experiential learning. I lived in a city (Pittsburgh) with easy access to great museums, including a wonderful planetarium, and I was fortunate enough to go to a school that had great field trips and to be selected for programs with even better ones. You might say I was a "huge learner" who had great opportunities to discover and pursue interesting materials and questions.
We'd love to hear a couple of favorite stories/anecdotes about some of your research adventures.
My favorite research adventures involved spending time with notable scientists who were happy to allow me to share their work with young readers. I have a knack for asking them the kinds of questions that release their inner teenager. I love it when my question unleashes their enthusiasm for and excitement about what they do, usually in words that speak directly to middle-graders and teens.
Two of my books take readers on those research adventures with me. To the Young Scientist (Franklin Watts, 1997, http://www.fredbortz.com/YoungScientist.htm ) contains many memorable in-their-own-words interviews. It includes the late Richard Smalley, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in the year after my interview and before the book was published, stating, "I don't think that most people thought I would amount to anything as a high-schooler. Neither did I, frankly."
Also in that book, I had a chance to visit the late Eugene Shoemaker, founder of the field of astrogeology, and his wife Carolyn who has found more comets than any living person. They were so gracious and pleased about my project that Carolyn made sure I got to see the original image of "squashed" Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that had been captured by Jupiter and broke into pieces. The Shoemakers enjoyed a bit of public fame when those fragments smashed into Jupiter and produced dramatic images.
Another person who gained fame from what became known as "the Great Comet Crash" was a young planetary scientist named Heidi Hammel, who had been selected to head the Hubble Space Telescope imaging team for the event. She had a way of explaining the images that endeared her to the public. The Chronicle of Higher Education called her "Astronomy's Newest Star." So you can imagine how excited I was when the National Academies Press selected me to write Heidi's biography, Beyond Jupiter, for its Women's Adventures in Science series (Joseph Henry Press/Scholastic Library Publishing, 2005, http://www.fredbortz.com/HammelBio/ ).
My research for that book included three dusk-to-dawn nights with Heidi and her team at NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility at the peak of Hawaii's Mauna Kea. I have a section on my website devoted to that book with a travelogue of my Hawaiian adventure, including both a significant setback and an unexpected discovery for Heidi and her colleagues. Fascinating!
Why is your new book, MELTDOWN, so important?
When the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan, my first reaction was that the tragedy could have been so much worse. Japan was remarkably well-prepared for large earthquakes and tsunamis, and its toll of dead and missing, though large, was less than a tenth of the losses in the 2005 tsunami in Indonesia and the Haitian earthquake of 2010. But soon word came that the tsunami had washed out key backup generators at the Fukushima Dai'ichi power plant and that multiple meltdowns were possible.
Because I had written a chapter ("Fission with Melted Rods") about nuclear reactor meltdowns in my 1995 book Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure--and Success (W. H. Freeman, Scientific American Books for Young Readers, http://www.fredbortz.com/Catastrophe.htm, I knew that the same political arguments that followed the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents were likely to arise after Fukushima, and they would probably get much louder.
In Catastrophe!, I predicted that my readers would have to make difficult political choices about nuclear power as adults. I noted that as time passed, reactor technology would improve, while the need for electricity would grow. I didn't specifically mention that nuclear energy doesn't produce greenhouse gases, but I was aware that global warming was likely to become a major concern and would be an argument in favor of going nuclear. I was right on target with that analysis.
Now the big question from Fukushima, which is still being argued about, is what the events teach us about the necessity for and possibility of building safe nuclear power. The economic cost and societal impact on Japan are still being evaluated. So are questions of whether the meltdowns were preventable and how likely a similar event would be with new standards and technology. These questions will need time and careful analysis to be answered.
And even when we have answers, the political process will have to produce decisions on policy and regulation. That means we will have to evaluate alternative "green" power technologies. Meltdown! lays out the facts and policy questions about nuclear and other sources of electric power but, like Catastrophe! before it, leaves the answers to those questions open.
And that's another thing that nonfiction can do for readers. A novel is supposed to have a clear ending or at least send the readers in a clear direction with their thoughts. In real life (and science), we are often left with unanswered questions, which, as likely as not, will lead us to other unanswered questions. Meltdown! arms the readers with resources to follow those questions as future events and development dictate.
Any advice for using non-fiction in the classroom or school library?
Dr. Fred's School Author Visits!
I think my answers to the previous questions contain the answer to this one, but I will add that my publisher and I have created a specific classroom project called "Build an Energy Campaign Policy" based on Meltdown! It can be found in the eSource links at the publisher's webpage for the book (https://www.lernerbooks.com/products/t/12465/9780761386605/meltdown ). The eSource links also include some supplemental information about the electric power industry and a list of live website links.
One of those live links is the "Meltdown! Links and Updates" page at my website (http://www.fredbortz.com/Meltdown/LinksandUpdates.htm), which is particularly valuable because we are learning more about the Fukushima meltdowns, and the world is still reacting to the disaster.
What are you working on now?
Now that I have dipped my toes into a technological topic with significant political connections, I am eager to tackle global warming. The scientific evidence of what to expect and why is quite well established, but the political solutions to the problems ahead are likely to be difficult.
Different political points of view lead to different policies, and I do not intend to recommend one political policy over another. But the politics of climate change have been beset with arguments that distort the scientific conclusions in order to support a particular political agenda.
I hope to counter that by returning to the genre of my favorite research projects, the story of a science as seen through the eyes of a scientist. In particular, I have a proposal for a book about how scientists develop and use climate models. It's a topic that I discussed in a chapter of my 2010 book, Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology (Twenty-First Century Books, http://www.fredbortz.com/7WXT.htm ).
I also have a completed manuscript about humanity's future in space, including the possibility of settling other worlds.
It sounds fascinating, Fred! We hope to read it in the near future! Thank you so much for being with the SPELLBINDERS today!
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