ScienceOnline'09 - Interview with Henry Gee

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked Henry Gee, the senior editor at Nature and blogger at I, Editor and The End Of The Pier Show , to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock.

Thank you. It's nice to be here. Nice decor. Hessian up the walls. Very 1970s. I like the lava lamp. This sofa needs re-uphostering, though. The smell. I think something's crawled down the back and died.

Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

Delighted. Fire away.

Who are you?

i-6224e0b02c413faa9b1ce568d548dcef-Henry Gee mono crop_6156.jpg

Well, there's a thing. It rather depends whom you ask. To some, I am the Chosen One. To others, I'm the big fat bloke who's always in the way when they want to take a photograph of Cromer Pier. To yet others, I'm the man at the back with the dog. I have lived in all places. I have lived in all ages. Destined to wander the face of the Earth forever, I am the Eternal Champion, the Wandering Jew, the Scapegoat, the Highlander, the Serpent with a Thousand Young, the Seven-Headed Messiah. I am Bakrug the Great Water-Lizard, Execrated of Sarnath. I am all these things, and yet, none of them, the One-In-All. If you ever find out who I am, you will tell me, won't you? You might start by asking my wife. She might know. As for me, I haven't the faintest idea.

What is your (scientific) background?

That mural at Yale by Rudolph Zallinger called 'The Age of Reptiles'. That should be enough scientific background for anybody.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

Hang on - did you notice a solidus in that question? Did you? Two questions in one - very sneaky. So what's it to be - to do, or to be? Do? Be? Do be do be do? A lounge singer. Obviously. Mona Lisa. Buddy Can You Spare A Dime. All that old-school stuff. Ask me another.

What is your Real Life job?

[takes call on iPhone] Really? Is that so? Amazing. Sell the unicycle! Do it now! What were you thinking of? Sorry - my real life job? Ah yes. I work for a weekly magazine called Nature. You might have heard of it. It's quite well known. My father was terribly disappointed when I joined. He thought it was a magazine for nudists and that I'd give him free copies. You should have seen his face fall when I told him it was mainly about the release of calcium from intracellular stores, all of them fully clothed.

But that was then, just after the relief of Mafeking. Poor old Mafeking, he'd been standing outside the Men's Room for about a year and was hopping from foot to foot, fit to burst. Anyway, after he'd gone in I started as a junior reporter. After a while they threw me a few bones that nobody wanted, and for a few years I headed up the distant ancestor of Nature's online news output, as well as writing Nature's weekly press release, and handling all the manuscripts in organismal biology. I can't believe I had the energy. These days it's all I can do to handle just half our organismal biology submissions.

I also devised and edit Nature's SF column, Futures. This has been going for ten years, and, like the proverbial Man from Devizes, has won an award. The European Science Fiction Society bestowed upon Nature the honour of being 'Best SF Publisher' of 2005. Nobody has yet come up to my face and said that everything Nature publishes is science fiction, but then, you can see my face from a long way off, and having seen it, you'd probably want to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. If you were to ask me to summarize my job in a sentence, I'd say I was Nature's Senior Editor in charge of Sex, Death and Aliens from Outer Space.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Twitter. If you'd have asked me a year ago, I'd have said the Acheulean hand axe, but, you know, change is fast in the field of communications, Web-2.0 and whatnot. You have to keep up.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work?

I have a large figure, as some have been indelicate enough to notice, and blogging has a figure to match. It's enormously important to me. As Winston Churchill wished to say in an address to the Free French: when he looked back at his career, he saw that it was divided into two parts. Being Churchill, he actually said this in French. His French was rudimentary to say the least, and what came out was 'quand je regarde mon derriere je vois qu'il est divise en deux parts'. Which went down a storm. Blogging has transformed my life, so that I can see my past sundered, as it were, by a cleft of Churchillian magnitude, behind which - that is to say, beyond - is a past, as if another country, in which blogging didn't happen. However, when I look back at Churchill's bottom, I see that a lot of the writing I've always done, right back to student days, when I should have been sweeping up the Emerald Bar (don't look for it, it isn't there any more) was, how shall we say, bloggy. I think I was born to blog. Blogging is my middle name. Actually, it isn't. My middle name, that is. My middle name is, in fact, 'Ernest'. I am trying to convince my children that the 'E' stands for 'Extraordinary' but they remain unpersuaded.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

It all started when Matt Brown, the London Editor of Nature Network, wanted to start a blogging platform. I tried to tell him that the thing he was putting together in his garage from a jam jar, three egg boxes, a recycled melamine kitchen worktop and several lengths of damp bailer twine loosely knotted together would never achieve powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight, but Matt - bless him - was like all pioneers, eyes to the stars, feet firmly planted in mid-air. I couldn't bear to see the lad fail, so when he asked me to supply some hot air to give it lift, I could hardly refuse. I started blogging at Nature Network in February, 2007. The blog was called 'The End Of The Pier Show', but it's now called I, Editor, and The End Of The Pier Show has moved to Blogger. I try to confine my Nature-Network blog to more-or-less scientific things, so I can devote my energies on 'The End Of The Pier Show' to right-wing politics and animal husbandry. This might seem a somewhat odd juxtaposition, but I can assure you that by the time you get to Cromer the distinction between them is moot.

Later in 2007 I went to SciFoo, and that was another turning point. I remember arriving at the hotel, putting down my girrafe, and, resolving to conquer my inherent shyness, decided I'd go up to the first person I met and introduce myself. Especially if I could cadge a cigarette. (I still smoked back then. These days I only smoke through my ears). So it was that I met Bora Zivkovic. Perhaps you've met him? He is one of the most prolific science bloggers in the iSphere. In fact, he told me that the only way his mother can reach him is by leaving comments on his blog, in Serbian. Small world, eh? In fact, it was through blogs that Bora visited Cromer, where I live, and that's the next thing - it might seem odd to have a meatspace conference about blogging, but there are times when you have to meat (sorry, 'meet') people in real life.

The Science Online '09 conference was great, as I met many US-based bloggers in person, for the first time, people like Abel Pharmboy, Scicurious, GrrlScientist, PalMD, the Flying Trilobite, Greg Laden, and many others. It was meeting these people in person that got me interested in their blogs, so the horizons of my own particular blogosphere have broaded immeasurably since the conference, in a way that they might not have done. But because blogging is such a personal activity, the lines between the real and the virtual can be blurred. For example, I ran into Eva Amsen (Expression Patterns, EasternBlot), and we were both convinced we'd met each other before. We had to sit down and think it through very carefully before we realized that we'd never actually met. It was weird.

I heard that your session (co-moderated with Pete Binfield) about 'becoming a journal editor' was an ur-example of what an Unconference session should look like.

OK, you tell me. What should an Unconference session look like? Joking apart, I've gradually moved to an unconference style of presentation in most everything I do. This is partly because I'm sartorially confused and just plain bone idle, and partly because I have a horror of gadgetry breaking down mid-lecture. But it's mostly because, when I go out to labs and give seminars on what I get up to as a Nature editor, I've found that a rigid style of presentation makes peoples' eyes glaze over. Honestly, whenever anyone these days gives a Powerpoint presentation it's like Village of the Damned. Instead, I just say who I am (honestly, many people are amazed to find that Nature editors are even vaguely human) and then invite questions. Frequently asked questions include how do I go about choosing referees for papers; the criteria I use to consider papers for possible publication; the politics of supplementary information; the status of open peer-review and free-access publication in the world today; how much they need to bribe me to guarantee publication; and whether I spilled their pint. So, as you can imagine, the time flies by.

It was good to co-moderate the session with Pete Binfield of PLoS ONE, because we complemented each other - I am concerned with the nuts and bolts of handling manuscripts, whereas he is a managing editor, concerned with strategy and the business side. I don't think people are always as aware as they might be of such distinctions. If you think of me as a Film Director, responsible for the editorial content, Pete would be the Film Producer, responsible for the financial and logistical backup.

I remember the session being packed out. I think some people had come expecting a fight. Before the session I definitely overheard people who might have been ticket touts, and gossip that included the phrase 'wrestling in mud'. I'm sorry if people were disappointed.

How was it for you?

The Earth moved, baby. Pity I've given up smoking.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote - that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

nothing in particular - just a lot of memories and the warm fuzziness of good fellowship; of having finally found, after all these years, the promises of dawns that turn out to be false and a past littered with the corpses of failed relationships, a community of people in which I feel I belong. I should stop now, as I'm gonna cry.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview.

My pleasure. Do you know if the next bus goes to the station?

It does, but the train goes nowhere. I hope to see you again next January.

Do you now? I don't remember agreeing to a second date. But you seem very nice, and I'm sure I'll be free. What did you say your name was?


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.


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moochas smochas!

It's all lies, I say. The man's an imposter.

By cromercrox (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink