ScienceOnline2010 - interview with John McKay

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years' interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked John McKay from Archy and Mammoth Tales blogs to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)?

I've spent most of my life in and around the Pacific Northwest. I spent the years when I formed my adult identity in Alaska and, even though I now live in Seattle, I think of myself as Alaskan. Just for the record, everyone I know, with one exception, voted against Sarah Palin.

I was a little kid during the golden years of the space program: the race to the moon. I watched every launch, even the satellites, and could name all of the astronauts up through the end of the Apollo program. At the same time, my dad worked for, what was then called, the Atomic Energy Commission building research reactors. I always assumed I'd become a scientist. But the way I saw great research projects treated--the budget cuts to scientific space research and some of my dad's projects being canceled and forgotten--soured me on the whole business. I think if I'd had some exposure to academic science I might have felt different. When I went to college I went as a history major.

But I never gave up on science. I continued to follow science in the news. I have read Scientific American for the last thirty years or so. I spent most of the decade between college and graduate school working in bookstores and used my discount to buy almost as many popular science titles as history titles. When it came time to pick a specialty in grad school, history of science was one of the finalists (I eventually picked modern Balkans and colonial Africa). Blogging gives me the opportunity to go back to some of the fields I passed up and write about them.

i-bb42f7d72ad0eaabc351f45ff657e4c6-archy pic.gifI guess this brings me to my blogging identity. I have a tiny blog called archy that I've been writing for almost seven years. The blog is about whatever catches my fancy: science news, history, conspiracy theories, and too much politics. I just created a second, depoliticized blog, called Mammoth Tales, that will focus more on science and history. Right now, I'm cross posting the same articles on both blogs, but, in time, I expect Mammoth Tales to develop an identity of its own.

What is your (scientific) background?

The biography above pretty much says it all. I've spent the last half century as an enthusiastic and curious spectator of science, but I have zero in the way of formal credentials. For the last few years, I've been turning my historical training to the study of the history of science. It's amazing how useful some serious work in critical reading has been for me in fields that have traditionally been unrelated to history.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Since I've never had a job in science, there shouldn't be that much to tell. However, I do have experience in technology. After I left grad school, I was in a rather difficult career spot. My job history was a fragmented mess; for most of my working life I had held service jobs with no discernible pattern. My longest period of work had been in bookstores. At forty I wanted to start living something like a grown-up, but a bookstore salary wouldn't even allow me to pay my student loans. The world was not exactly overflowing with job offers for Master's degrees in Balkan History. Clever Wife helped me review my skills. We discovered I am good at explaining things and Seattle needed technical writers. I've spent the last dozen years writing help files and end user documentation for software and internet businesses. It's not exactly hard science, but it keeps me in contact with science minded people.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

i-175384c149491b54656f83555889385e-mammoth small pic.jpgAnyone who knows me or has read my blog during the last two or three years knows I'm working on a book about the early discoveries of woolly mammoths and how Enlightenment scientists deciphered what they were. Mammoths and mastodons were the first two extinct species to be identified as such and reconstructed. Until then, unfamiliar fossils were assumed to be remains of species that were still alive somewhere else. Many believed that it was impossible for a species to be completely extinct. Theologically, it implied imperfection in the perfect God's creation. But large land mammals, such as mammoths and mastodons, were simply too big to be hiding somewhere; they had to be extinct. This identification of the mammoth as an extinct species was a profound milestone in the history of science. In banishing a solely religious argument, it was an important step in establishing secular explanations as an integral part of the scientific method. Establishing the reality of extinction put in place one of the pillars of evolutionary theory. Finally, as a demonstration of the methodologies for reconstructing an unknown species from fossils, the mammoth set the science of paleontology on a firm footing. Of course the main reason for tackling this story is that it's a ripping good yarn. At various points, it touches on exploration, trade, the ebb and flow of empire, great thinkers, powerful monarchs, giants, dragons, unicorns, and the invention of chocolate milk. Besides, it's time for a mammoth book that looks at something other than the tired questions of why they went extinct and when we'll clone some new ones (the answers are bad luck and not yet).

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

i-1ec25f1bc11039fc5a98fb281c70df24-John McKay pic.JPGIn my presentation at ScienceOnline2010, I talked about the professionalization of science and science publishing. In the eighteenth century, most of the--admittedly small--educated population of Europe and America could participate in the scientific endeavour. The scientific societies gave over a large part of their journal pages to correspondence from interested readers. Experiments and observations by gentleman farmers, frontier soldiers, and sea captains were important sources of new knowledge. That changed in the next century. In the nineteenth century, science became a professional business practiced by appropriately credentialed men in academia, government, and industry. Enthusiastic amateurs disappeared from the journals. A separate popular science press grew up to explain what the professionals were up to. Science was divided into practicers and spectators.

I see an new type of science communication emerging on the internet. We're never going to get back to the point where everyone can do original science, but amateurs be still be invaluable as observers. The internet makes it possible to organize those amateur observers into regional, and even global, networks. I'm thinking of astronomy and geology, where you can never have too many observers. I'm sure other fields will think of ways to use this enormous pool of free labor. Where this becomes relevant to people like me is that the internet makes it possible for the science literate to once again to participate in the discussion, rather than just to be passive spectators of science. Being allowed into the discussion is a very exciting development for people like me, who work outside science and/or have non-science backgrounds, but who are still interested in science.

A second development that has been very exciting for me, as a writer and as an historian, has been access to information over the internet. It's almost a cliche for internet watchers to bemoan the amount of misinformation and bad information on the internet. What sometimes gets lost in these discussions is the fact that this is only a problem because the bad information is indiscriminately mixed in with good information. The problem is in knowing how to sort the two. It's really not that different than life outside the internet.

My mammoth book would not be possible without the internet. Most of the original sources that I have used in my research would not have been available to me just ten years ago. Many early journals existed for only a few years, in very small numbers. To read them, I would have had to travel to major libraries in Europe and the Eastern states, which would have been prohibitively expensive. Once at those libraries, I would have needed to get access to their rare book collections, which would have been very difficult since I lack an institutional affiliation. Because of Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and the efforts of libraries like the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Library of Congress, and Universität Göttingen, I can now read these works online. In may cases I can view scans of the actual pages and see how this information was first presented.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

I'm going to stick with the theme of being part of the discussion. I started blogging seven years ago primarily to rant and scream about politics. Since then, I have discovered many other uses for blogging. I can rant and scream about popular culture. I can rant and scream about religion. I can rant and scream about bad history. I can write thoughtful and informative essays--which everyone should read and link to--about mammoths. And I can try out ideas for the book. It's not my plan to serialize the book in my blogs. However, condensing parts of my research into short articles lets me see whether different narrative structures and organizations work. It's basically market testing.

Social networks are a little trickier. Over the last few months, I've set up accounts on Facebook and Twitter. I have reconnected with a few old friends over Facebook. I let them pull me into one of the games, which, for a while, was an enormous time suck. I haven't quite figured out what to do with Twitter. I can see how social networks can be useful for building a personal community, a brand, I'm just slow at learning how to do it.

Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

It's a mixed blessing. The internet provides endless distractions and excuses for not working. At the same time it provides access to information, community, and a means to participate in meaningful discussions. With a modicum of self-discipline (and a modicum is all I have), I think it is a net positive.

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

It's been a snowballing thing for me. Because I have always been interested in science, I naturally hunted for a few science blogs when I started reading blogs. When Seed magazine set up Science Blogs, most of the blogs I was already reading were in the first group. As new blogs were incorporated, I started reading them. As I followed links out from the SciBlings and the commenters, I discovered more blogs. ScienceOnline2010 exposed me to still more. Getting back to the subject of internet distractions, I could easily spend a day or two each week just checking in on all of the blogs I've discovered.

Before I went to the conference, I scoped out the sites of all the attendees. When I got home, I checked them again to attach faces to the blogs. I finished looking at Joanne Loves Science and got up to get some coffee. Clever Wife was at her computer researching something for her home-crafted soap business. When I came in to ask if she needed a refill, I found her reading Joanne Loves Science. One of her friends had recommended Joanne's Science of Beauty essays.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you?

I hate to repeat what everyone else has said, but it was meeting people. You are a great example. You and I have not only been reading each others' blogs for years, but we've corresponded through e-mail, and regard each other as friends. Yet we had never met. Online identities usually only represent a part of a person's personality. Some people have a very carefully crafted and controlled online personality. It was great fun to see how the real people compared to their online personae and to how I imagined them. Most people were shorter than I expected. You were an exception. Joanne Manaster is also tall. I am not.

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?

After the socializing, my main goal in coming to the conference was to get tips on turning my mammoth manuscript into a real book. I think my time at the conference was very productive. The sessions relating to writing all gave me useful ideas that I'm putting to work. I made several useful contacts. I was disappointed that no major publishing house editors stood up at dinner shouting "I have a bucket full of money for a good mammoth book." But you can't have everything.

Any suggestions for next year?

Remind the hotel to stock more beer before the weekend. All the local microbrews were tapped out before last call on Friday. That's just wrong.

It was so nice to finally, finally meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

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