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NPRs science correspondent's new book examines science in everyday life



Nell Greenfieldboyce is NPRs long time science correspondent who has written her first book. "Transient and Strange" examines the intersection of science with day to day life.


Bill Burton: Neil Greenfieldboyce is NPR's science correspondent who has spent many years explaining the intricacies of various science related stories. And now she's taken her love and knowledge of science, and written a book titled, "Transient and Strange." And she joins us to talk about the work now. Welcome.

Nell Greenfieldboyce: Thank you. Thank you so much.

BB: Your book is a collection of essays, most definitely they're focusing on science, but from a very personal perspective, they're stories of how science is so deeply interwoven with our day to day existence. How did you come to write this collection of essays?

NG: Well, I have a friend who has a website that's called the last word on nothing. It comes from Victor Hugo quote, which says, science says the first word on everything and the last word on nothing. And she and some other science journalists use this website to write creatively sometimes, and she suggested I write a couple essays for her. And I did and then I realized I really enjoyed it. It was the kind of writing I hadn't done much before. And I, I started exploring all kinds of things that were of interest to me at the time in my personal life. But then, of course, because I love science so much, and I've thought about it for so many years, invariably, science got all mixed up in the personal stuff I was writing about,

BB: I love that your book takes a look at science, which sometimes can be kind of seemingly cold and distant. But you look at it with a bit of a poetic, philosophical slant. Have you always viewed science that way?

NG: Yeah, I think so. You know, early in my career, I thought I was going to be a scientist, but I ended up taking some history of science courses. And I really got intrigued by just you know, how scientists do their work and how they think about things and how they're human just like everybody else. And, you know, it turns out that when I think about science, a lot of the sort of metaphors that I reach to, to understand things or to, you know, sort of interpret the world come from what I've read about in science. And, you know, for example, the first essay in the book looks at my son's fear of tornadoes that he developed. And so, as I was trying to be reassuring with him, I was also interested in tornadoes, and doing a lot of research on tornadoes and the history of the science. And I called up a tornado expert to ask him what he thought I should tell my son. And so, you know, for me, just living my life in variably, I get interested in scientific themes, and they sort of metaphorically speak to me,

BB: You mentioned your son, and all of the essays are very personal, but I think it would be safe to say none is more personal than the one you titled "My Eugenics Project." Can you tell us a little bit about that one?

NG: Yeah. So that's an essay about my husband and I thinking about having kids and trying to cope with a genetic disease that runs in his family, and whether we should take steps to try to prevent it. And, you know, because I'm interested in the history of science, I am very aware of the dark history of Eugenics in our country. Many people aren't aware of that, and how it played out in the United States and affected, you know, tens of thousands of people's lives. And so, you know, when I was meeting with genetic counselors and thinking about all those sorts of things, you know, I was doing so as somebody who was acutely aware of this history, and trying to understand, you know, how it was playing out in my experience, and how it might continue to play out in the future.

BB: What are you hoping your readers take away from your work?

NG: Well, I hope if somebody reads this, that they would learn a lot about, you know, all kinds of science topics like tornadoes and black holes and meteorites and fleas and genetics, but I hope they also just enjoy thinking about some big questions that sometimes we don't make time to think about, you know, we're all trying to understand the universe and our place in it whether you know, you're a scientist or a parent or a kid and, you know, I think to a certain extent, we're fellow travelers and I would hope that people would find some, some companionship there.

BB: The book is titled, "Transient and Strange," and it is from the first time author and longtime NPR science correspondent Neil Greenfieldboyce. Nell, pleasure to talk with you. Thanks so much for your time.

NG: Thanks for having me on the show.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.