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See Inside December 2007

Apples and Cheese

A write-up of my week as a writer not writing



MATT COLLINS

During the first week of October, I was the science-writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Being a science-writer-in-residence vastly beats being a regular old science writer, because I did not actually have to write anything. I thus got to recharge my depleted store of metaphors (my brain was a wasteland, a barren desert, a bachelor’s refrigerator), rest my tendonitis-ridden mouse arm and leave verbs unconjugated. I declined all declensions.

I also visited the Center for Dairy Research—this is Wisconsin, after all—where I had my inaugural mouthful of cheese curds, the first coagulated bits that form in the cheese-making process. As advertised, if they’re superfresh, they will indeed squeak when you chew them, thanks to their still supple, rubbery band of proteins. A few hours past freshness and the cheese is as quiet as a mouse.

My time, of course, wasn’t all cheese popping and not writing. I was not on some kind of scrivener’s version of an agricultural subsidy, in which I would be rewarded for not growing alfalfa. In fact, while my mouse arm healed, my throat became ever sorer—I yapped incessantly. I interviewed various scientists about the secrets of their work and shared some secrets of my work with journalism students, newspaper people, scientists and retirees. This last group was delighted to hear stories about working in radio in the long-forgotten days of the 1980s, when audio editing was accomplished not with sophisticated digital software but with razor blades. Audio was recorded on something called  “tape” back then, which we actually physically cut and stuck back together. The younger students were amazed and aghast at this factoid, so I went on to tell them that we then collected the leftover pieces of tape and assembled them into the single-engine tinderbox that Charles Lindbergh flew to become the first man on the moon in 1989.

Back to cheese, which goes with apples, which may be why just a short walk from the cheese research building is the Newton apple tree, which, a plaque notes, is “a direct descendant of the original tree said to have borne the fruit that inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravitational Forces.” Thus was Newton able to describe the motion around Earth of the moon, regardless of what kind of cheese Lindbergh discovered it was made from.

Speaking of the moon, I also told some campus astronomers that Scientific American was attempting to be more accessible to more readers, because even professional scientists had complained to us that the articles outside their own fields had become too technical to follow. A professor emeritus of astronomy then told me that he indeed had heard that very complaint once voiced by a professional scientist—J. Robert Oppenheimer, who knew something about technical matters.

One of the more thought-provoking sessions of my week was with scientists interested in the journalist-interviewee process. I’m typically on this side of that equation, asking them. They wanted to know more about that side, being asked. Which might be of interest to anyone, because we live in a time when any of us can suddenly be thrown into a media spotlight—some men strive to be on the cover of Time magazine, some have the cover of Time thrust upon them. (Becoming suddenly famous is not necessarily a good thing—if you’re just a regular person and you wind up on the cover of one of next week’s national newsweeklies, there’s a good chance that you’re dead and there are protest marches about who was responsible.)

The most common question from potential interviewees was how to not be nervous for a live radio or TV interview. I nervously replied that the best thing to keep in mind is that you’re indeed the guest. Sure, you have great stories about tweaking the Diels-Alder reaction with a chiral catalyst to produce polycyclic products in high enantiomeric excess. But you don’t have to feel like it’s your responsibility to keep the program light and bouncy—that’s the host’s job. So you can just answer the question, stop when you’re done and wait for the host to jump back in to keep the conversation moving. It’s like being on a blind date and you’re the cute one.

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