Monday, 8 August 2011

My life in science

Here's a short piece, slightly expanded from one I wrote for the program book of Norcon, which I attended earlier this year - hope it's of interest.

From science to science fiction...

In 2004 I turned full-time writer after more than a decade doing science. If there's a question I get asked more than any other, it's why did I quit my day job?

Here's my attempt at answering that. It might help, though, if I said a bit about what that day job concerned, and how I got into it.

I'd always been fascinated by science on some level, but it wasn't until my early teens that I started giving serious thought to the idea of doing it as a career. On the face of it, this was a bit of an odd choice. My natural talents, such as they were, lay far more in the direction of the arts than the sciences. From an early age it was clear that I had an aptitude for writing, and beyond that I was also quite a precocious artist. Most of my family and teachers assumed that I'd end up either involved with words or paint, or some level. But I had other ideas. Inspired by Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series, and the non-fiction science books of Asimov and Clarke, I had my heart set on being some kind of scientist. By the time I was forced to narrow down my choice of school subjects to maths, physics and chemistry, I was increasingly determined to become an astronomer. The fact that I wasn't particularly good at maths or physics - and even worse at chemistry - did not deter me in the least. Nonetheless my teachers were prepared to give me a chance.

It wasn't plain sailing by any means. I was offered a place at university in 1984, but that was contingent on getting a minimum set of grades. As it happened, I failed in spectacular fashion. I went back to school for another year, while most of my friends left home. It was a humbling experience, but in hindsight a really good one. That third year taught me a lot, and although I struggled to get the university offers that I wanted a second time round, I did apply myself to study with a lot more determination than in the previous two years. Unfortunately I was not able to find an astronomy course willing to offer me a place, but I settled on working with lasers, which at the time struck me as fantastically exciting, given that I'd only seen one in my entire life. As luck would have it, though, after getting three respectable passes, I was offered a position on an astronomy course at Newcastle. I'd never applied to that university, or even been to the city, so when I showed up on day one with my belongings in a rucksack, it was truly the start of an adventure.

I had a good time at Newcastle, and graduated with a decent degree in 1988. The friends I made there are all still close ones, and we keep in touch regularly. Importantly, three years of university life hadn't dented my enthusiasm for science. I decided to continue my studies by embarking on a PhD course. Newcastle didn't offer the doctoral level subjects I was interested in, and in any case I felt that a change of scenery would do me good. In the Autumn of 1988, therefore, I found myself on the way up to St Andrews, Scotland, to begin another three years of study.

Doing a PhD was very different to degree work. For the first time I was expected to show initiative, to develop my own research interests. I found the transition from formal study quite difficult at first, and I can't say I particularly enjoyed the first year. By the second year, though, I had some data to work on and more importantly a sense of direction. Equally significantly (to me, if not to anyone else) I'd also just broken into science fiction publishing. In the summer of 1989 I sold my first piece of short fiction, to Interzone magazine. I was over the moon. Not long after they also took a second piece from me. The stories wouldn't appear in the magazine until the following year, but for the first time I felt the faint stirrings of a possible second career.

My work at St Andrews involved observations taken with an instrument mounted above the main observatory building itself: the 0.5m Leslie Rose Telescope. Although small by international standards this was a big scope to be using in the UK, although not the biggest at St Andrews, and with the right approach it was capable of doing first class work. I spent many, many nights in the dome, often wearing four or five layers - it got cold in winter! Generally I had a radio for company and got through the night on multiple cups of coffee. This was real astronomy: the telescope's data-acquisition system was electronic, but ensuring that the instrument was correctly tracking the target star meant that an observer needed to keep returning to the eyepiece at regular intervals. The dome also needed to be moved manually throughout the night.

I also made use of the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring, New South Wales, as well as some data collected remotely from the Canary islands. I've written a couple of stories with an Australian theme and they both stemmed from those exciting visits to the country in 1989 and 1990 (I returned in 1994, but that run was a total washout - we spent both nights playing pool and waiting for the rain to stop, if memory serves).

At the end of 1991, after three years in St Andrews, I handed in my PhD thesis, entitled 'Optical Spectroscopy of Massive X-ray Binaries'. Staying on to do further research wasn't really an option, so I was obliged to look further afield. After seeing a job vacancy I hopped over to the European Space Agency's establishment in Noordwijk, Holland for an interview. Though the job I'd applied for was now filled, they offered me another one. With the bank breathing down my neck, it didn't take me long to accept. I went from being unemployed, to having my future mapped out for at least the next year. That was a great feeling, although I was a little apprehensive about relocating to a foreign country.

The job concerned EXOSAT, an ESA satellite that had orbited the Earth between 1983 and 1986, studying the sky in the X-ray part of the spectrum. X-ray astronomy is a vast field in its own right, with its own language and concepts. Coming from a very different astronomical background, I had some catching up to do...and some pitfalls to watch out for.

To give an example: it's usual to study the distribution of starlight from a given astronomical object by means of a spectrum. A red star humps in the red part of the spectrum, a blue star humps in the blue part, and so on. In optical astronomy, it's normal to plot the units of 'colour' in terms of wavelength, which means that the 'blue end' is to the left of the 'red end'. In X-ray astronomy, however, the spectrum is plotted back to front! No problem if you work exclusively in one or other disciplines, but hopping between them needs a bit of mental agility, especially in the high-pressure environment of a telescope control room where you're comparing plots and trying to assess the feasibility of some observation with the clock ticking and your liquid nitrogen running out...

It gets even worse when you start thinking about the units used to measure the intensity of a given colour - are we using Janskys today, or Crabs, or photon counts? If it's photons, is it photons per second, or photons per second per KeV? Sound of man bashing head against wall...

Most of the science I did in my first three years in the Netherlands concerned data that was already in the EXOSAT archive - observations that the satellite had made, but which still hadn't been analysed in any detail. My studies focused on neutron stars in binary systems, trying to work out details of their magnetic fields, and how the fields interacted with the gas streams being dragged off the other star. The neutron stars all happened to pulsars - emitting regular 'ticks' of X-ray flux akin to a very accurate clock. However, as the gas stream from the other star crashed into the magnetic field of the pulsar, there could be a braking or accelerating force which would cause the ticks to slow down or speed up. Once you'd disentangled the effects of orbital motion you could use the remaining variations to say something about the details of the magnetic field and the complicated gas flows. Needless to say, there were a lot of messy details that got in the way of a clear picture.

I really enjoyed working at ESA, but it often seemed like the database management side of my job was squeezing out any time to get to grips with the science side. My bosses kindly gave me a third year as a fellow, but at the end of 1994 I left to spend two years commuting from Noordwijk to Utrecht, where I worked in the university's astronomy department. Working in a purely academic environemnt was another culture shock and I unfortunately I didn't find that I got significantly faster in my paper writing than at ESA. I often got horribly bogged down in a particular stage of the analysis, fretting over error bars or something, details holding me back for months when I should be surging forward. I could see trouble brewing unless I either changed my career plans or became magically prolific overnight. At the end of 1996 I completed a telescope run in Chile, and then my partner (now my wife) and I took a week's holiday in the Atacama desert. By the time we got back to Holland, I was out of work.

It was scary but liberating. I used the spare time to finish my book, which I eventually managed to sell. At the same time, 1997 was the year when I finally felt that I was getting somewhere with my short fiction. I'd been writing and publishing for what seemed like years, but up to that point nothing had seemed to make any kind of splash or attract the wider attention of other editors in the field. Between 1997 and 1998, though, things started happening. My stories began to be noticed a bit more, and I started picking up interest from the American magazines.

I was also fortunate: I'd applied to work for a small company based in Haarlem, who claimed to have something to do with space science. As it happened, the firm turned out to be run by an amiable welshman I'd already known as a colleague in ESA. The firm took me on, and after a few small contracts spread over the next two years, I ended up working as a contractor on an ESA program named S-Cam. That was 1999, which was a fairly significant year for me. Ten years on from my first short fiction sale, it was the also the year when I managed to sell three novels. One written, one sort of written, the other no more than some vague intentions. It was all very exciting and I was lucky to have the support of my colleagues, many of whom turned out to be closet science fiction readers.

Working on S-Cam was fascinating. It was a project to develop a new detector technology for use in ground and space-based astronomy. S-Cam (abbreviated from STJ-Cam, or superconducting tunnel junction camera) would basically be the ultimate, all-singing, all-dancing camera, with a capability to not just count every single photon of starlight arriving from space, but to also log its arrival time with microsecond accuracy, and also determine its energy or colour. What would have been intractably difficult observations could now be made very easily, almost in a point-and-click fashion.

That was the idea, anyway, but S-Cam was also cutting-edge technology with all sorts of teething troubles that needed to be overcome. Not only was the instrument temperamental - it needed to be cooled to within half a degree above absolute zero, which is pretty cold - it also demanded a completely new approach to data analysis, all of which had to be invented more or less from scratch. I found that my dual background in optical and X-ray astronomy came in very handy, as S-Cam was basically an optical camera that behaved like an X-ray detector. Despite the technological difficulties we still managed to collect a lot of data with S-Cam, hooked onto the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary islands. Along the way we made some very neat observations of eclipsing binary systems, measured quasar redshifts and the temperatures and chemical compositions of stars. Between 2000 and 2004 we worked to upgrade to a larger version of the detector, with 120 pixels rather than 36. The 120 pixel array saw first light in the summer of 2004, just after I left ESA, and performed well despite less than brilliant weather.

So why did I leave? Not because I didn't enjoy the job, but because the demands of writing had increased to the point where I had little time for anything else. It was also deeply unfair on my wife, who hadn't had a holiday or much of a social life since I signed my novel contract. I was sad to give up science, but at the same time excited at being able to give writing more time. I'd found myself turning down approaches to write stories for anthologies - exactly the kind of offer I'd spent most of the last twenty years dreaming of getting! Now at least I'd be able to say yes to a few things that took my fancy.

I do miss some aspects of the day job, especially the banter around the coffee table in the morning. Doing science was also the kind of job where you never really knew what you were going to be working on from week to week, and the challenge of thinking analytically was obviously very different from the kinds of mental process involved in writing. That said, I think I'm reasonably well suited temperamentally to sitting at home all day, and it's surprising how quickly the hours go by. Also, you don't stop being a scientist just because they stop paying you. Science is a state of mind, not a job definition. I'm still fascinated by the entire edifice of modern science, and an avid reader of New Scientist. All in all, then, I'm happy enough with the way things worked out. In my old day job, I got to have fun and work with some amazingly talented and generous people. Now I get to write about other planets and other times for a living, and I'm more delighted than you can imagine that some of my readers are scientists and astronauts, still out there doing what I always dreamed of doing. Being a science fiction writer has probably opened more doors for me than being a paid scientist ever did...

The only thing that hasn't improved is the vast amount of coffee I still drink, but you can't have it all. The mathematician Paul Erdos once described himself as a machine for turning coffee into proofs. Change "proofs" for "science fiction" and you've got a pretty good description of me.


  1. Thanks for posting that -- I've always wondered about the details of the progression between your various back-page bios.

  2. Very interesting. I think you made the right choice. You may have been advancing the boundaries of human knowledge in your previous job, but the personal enjoyment I (and lots of other folks, I'm sure) get from your novels and stories is hard to put into words.

    So, thanks.

  3. Hopefully this doesn't sound too "sappy" or anything, but I actually found this story to be extremely inspiring. I'm currently at a middle of the road university and am only managing to get by with B's and C's in math/physics, even though my interest in those subjects can sometimes be obsessive.

    I think I have read all of the RS books at least 3 times in the past few years. To find out that the author of my favorite SF books struggled with math and physics as well is a big sigh of relief.

    By the way, have the issues with the S-Cam been solved? It sounds like something with good potential. Hopefully it wasn't shelved!

  4. Chris J: well that's good to hear. I was certainly not academically gifted at school but I think if you want something badly enough, determination will get you 90% of the way most of the time. I would also encourage anyone who gets bad grades not too despair too much as there are always second chances in life.

    The S-cam team (I was only a cog in that machine) continued with the instrument, and related areas of research, long after I left. I don't know the current state of that work, though.

    Rusty, Hunter - thanks.

  5. Great post. It gave me a bit of insight into how AR's novels contain such plausible sounding technology. The hard details spread throughout Revelation Space were one of the "hooks" that got into me as soon as I picked up the book.