It was at Discover that I started writing about science, a couple years out of college and with no clear idea of what I was going to do. My first two articles came out in the same issue in November 1989. One was illustrated with a picture of E. coli colonies, each glowing its own color of the rainbow. The story described the work of a scientist named Keith Wood, who had isolated the gene fireflies use to glow in 1984, and who went on two isolate genes for other colors from Jamaican beetles. The other story described a hybrid underground of poets and novelists who were just starting to use computers. Some were experimenting with something called hyperfiction, in which pages of a text were linked, so that a reader no longer had to be trapped in a one-dimensional narrative.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but those two pieces pretty much epitomize my life today. During my time at Discover, my passion zeroed in on biology–in particular on the intersection of old-fashioned natural history and cutting-edge technology. I was a senior editor at Discover in the 1990s and then left to write books on things like parasites and walking whales, and most recently I wrote about E. coli–including experiments in which scientists made E. coli glow in different colors to understand how genetically identical clones can behave as unique individuals. Even E. coli has fingerprints.
Along the way, I also became fascinated with new formats for writing about science. I came to the world of publishing just as the computer was taking over. The folks in Discover’s production department had yet to give up slicing articles up with Exacto knives and gluing them to pages. I persuaded my boss to get a modem for the magazine and discovered web pages scientists were setting up. I lobbied for us to get email addresses, and helped set up Discover’s web site. At the time, I did these things mainly because they were fun; their use–their inescapableness–would come much later. Four years ago, I discovered people who were doing for science writing what others had done to stories with hyperfiction. They were blogging. I joined in, and blogging has become a regular part of my writing life–a notebook, a playground, a personal wire service.
Today I’m moving my blog to Discover, where I got my start. I’ll also be writing a monthly column for Discover about the brain, which will provide much fodder for additional blog posts. It’s good to be back.