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Interview

Queen of the cocktails

Physics served up with style

21 October 2006

www.lablit.com/article/164

Buffy's biggest fan: Jennifer Oullette

I’m still bothered by the knee-jerk assumption by some physicists that if someone misunderstands the science, they are mentally challenged in some way. The public picks up on that unspoken contempt, and reacts accordingly

Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer and editor based in Washington DC, presides over one of the hippest science blogs going – Cocktail Party Physics. Along with her avatar alter-ego, Jen-Luc Piquant, she serves up a mix of pop culture, in-depth science and deadly recipes for science-related cocktails, including Quantum Theory (“guaranteed to collapse your wave function”) and The Mad Scientist (“flames make drinking more fun”). How did a former English major end up in this predicament? LabLit.com recently caught up with Ouellette to find out more.

You have a humanities background – when and why did you become interested in physics?

I was a 20-something physics phobe, living in New York City. I’d just returned from a trip overseas, and desperately needed a job, so I went to work for the American Physical Society. It turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened, because I got to see physics as it is actually done, rather than in the more sterile classroom context, and I realized what I’d been missing. I owe a great debt to the APS, along with the American Institute of Physics. Both organizations gave me lots of writing work early on despite my lack of a science degree; I literally learned about physics on the job. They also saw past my unconventional style: I was in the midst of an ill-advised, purple-haired punk phase. Fortunately for me, physicists care less about how you dress, and more about whether you produce good work.

Science writing is very competitive – did you find it hard to break in?

To be honest, I’ve never been especially aware of the competitiveness of my chosen field; I view my fellow science writers as colleagues rather than rivals. This is probably to my professional detriment, but so be it. I recently admitted on my blog that an appropriate subtitle for my career trajectory would be “How I Did Everything Wrong and Still Became a Successful Science Writer.” Quite frankly, I wasn’t trying to “break into” science writing; I didn’t know the career existed. I was floundering around, trying to figure out what to do with my life while still making the rent on my tiny East Village apartment. My main concern was survival. So I’d say that my entire career started out as a lucky break, and I’ve since made the most of it.

Which achievement are you most proud of?

There have been several major milestones, most notably writing two books. But I consider being only the second woman in some 40 years to earn a black belt in my particular style of jujitsu to be one of my most significant achievements. That’s because it wasn’t about getting a black belt: it was about overcoming fear and self-doubt (not to mention gender stereotypes), about learning from my own mistakes and failures, and about pushing through the pain and frustration to reach a worthwhile goal. Those are invaluable lessons I’ve taken into every aspect of my life.

Ever used the jujitsu in a real-life situation?

Only in demonstrations. It’s a paradox of martial arts training that the more skill you attain, the less likely you are to use physical violence to defend yourself on the street. Certainly I gained confidence and carried myself differently because of my jujitsu training. That goes a long way towards diffusing potentially threatening situations. I’ve found that most bullies back right down if you make direct eye contact and step toward them purposefully, rather than cringing or stepping back. If that ever fails, I’ve got some other, nastier skills to fall back on.

Your blog posts are about as long and detailed as a typical popular science piece. How do you decide which to post and which to try to get paid for?

The great thing about the blog is that I can write what I want, when I want, without having to skew it to a particular editorial style. It’s the ideal format for my writerly “voice,” and it’s okay if the posts are a bit rough around the edges. There are lots of topics and quirky items that just don’t warrant a polished full-length article, or would be tough to pitch to a science magazine. There’s still an audience for such things, and those often find their way into blog posts.

However, I don’t get paid to blog, which raises the question: why do I bother? I see the blog as an online writing laboratory that feeds into my professional writing. Nothing is ever wasted. For instance, I wrote a long post back in March on the obscure topic of catenary arches and the entropy curve. One tiny piece of that – literally two paragraphs – became an article for New Scientist. And I daresay bits and pieces of other posts will eventually find their way (substantially reworked) into published books or articles.

Were you ever tempted to retrain as a physicist or is it more fun just to be a voyeur?

Every now and then I wonder, “What if….” But in all honesty, no matter how much I applied myself, I would have been a mediocre physicist. I’m a very good science writer. So I think things worked out just fine for all concerned.

Is science in general and physics in particular ever going to be sexy to the masses?

I think it already is, to a certain extent: the public has a strong love/hate relationship with science. That’s a start. It gives us a slight advantage in reaching out to them; we just need to make it more lively and accessible. I’m just as concerned about the attitude of certain scientists towards the public, which can range from indifferent to openly contemptuous. That attitude is changing – and fast – but I’m still bothered by the knee-jerk assumption by some physicists that if someone misunderstands the science, they are mentally challenged in some way. The public picks up on that unspoken contempt, and reacts accordingly – usually by writing off physics entirely.

Are you in touch with your inner geek?

I try to keep the lines of communication open, but sometimes I get the silent treatment from my inner geek. There are days when that introverted, antisocial reprobate just won’t return my calls, and I find myself watching “Behind the Music” on VH-1 instead of partaking of more substantial scientific fare.

Who visits your site? Are you preaching to the converted or do non-scientists come along too?

I’m certainly partly preaching to the converted in the scientific blogosphere. And I’m delighted to have such a smart, savvy audience, but I hope I get a few interested non-scientists reading as well. The harsh reality is that any time you’ve got “physics” in the title, some people will be scared off. My goal is to win them back. What could be less threatening than embedding the scientific concepts in the blogging equivalent of cocktail party chatter?

Which specialty of physics interests you the most and why?

It’s a toss-up between materials physics and acoustics. I like anything quirky and interdisciplinary, and those two subfields tend to have an abundance of such qualities. For instance, this past summer, Livermore scientists figured out how to use carbon nanotubes to make synthetic snot. How cool is that? I also find the whole concept of entropy fascinating. It literally shows up everywhere.

Go on, plug your upcoming book. You know you want to.

Yes! I do! I have no shame! It’s called The Physics of the Buffyverse, and the title is pretty self-explanatory. The book draws on examples from the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, to illustrate a broad range of physics concepts. The official pub date is December 26. It will be a Very Buffy Boxing Day.

What’s with the Buffy obsession?

How does one explain why one loves the object of one’s affection? I loved horror, mythology and fairy tales as a child. I was an English major, so I appreciate the witty dialogue and literary allusions, and I write about science, so I get the sci-fi references. I’ve also trained in martial arts, another big component of the show. Really, it’s like Joss Whedon created the Buffyverse just for me. And about a million other fellow fans.

People either “get” the series, or they don’t. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. But that’s okay, I’m used to the funny looks. Shortly after I started writing the Buffyverse book, a physicist pal emailed me. He was flipping through channels and stumbled on the classic musical episode (“Once More With Feeling”). “There’s an episode of Buffy on right now,” he wrote, clearly bemused. “Everyone is singing. Is this normal? And where’s the physics in that?”

What will your next book be about?

I’ve got a couple of ideas, but it’s a bit premature to go on record. For the first few months of 2007, I’ll mostly be promoting the Buffyverse book. This hopefully will boost sales, thereby ensuring that there will be a third book, maybe even a fourth. I love this whole book writing gig, even if I dread the obligatory self-promotion.

Who is your favorite physicist in a work of fiction (novel, tv, film or play), and why?

I just saw a re-run of Real Genius at the gym – those wacky science geeks and their silly inventions will always hold a special place in my heart. But one of my favorite physicists appeared in an episode of Angel called “Happy Anniversary.” His name was Gene, and he master-minded an intricate lab experiment that essentially stopped time, “at least from the perspective of an outside observer.” Plus, he took meeting a horned green-skinned demon in stride, and he was a diehard romantic who liked to sing sappy love songs at karaoke bars. What’s not to love?

Hardcore Whedon fans will no doubt protest, “What about Fred?” She was one of the regular characters on Angel, a brilliant physics student who helped fight supernatural crime, and eventually headed up her own corporate research division before meeting a horrible fate. Fred was a great character. I cried my little geek-grrl eyes out when she died, but she doesn’t top my list of favorite physicists. For one thing, she was cringing and insecure, even borderline unstable at times. And just as she reached an empowered scientific maturity, she was struck down – a victim of her own curiosity. It’s easy to get the wrong message: Don’t aspire to professional prominence or positions of authority, and for god’s sake don’t investigate that mysterious ancient sarcophagus, or your insides will be liquefied as punishment for daring to ask probing questions about the universe. I doubt this was the intent of the show’s writers, but nonetheless, I find it troubling.

What tv drama has been the best PR for scientists and why?

C.S.I. has made criminal forensics one of the sexiest fields in the public eye. Thanks to its success, we’re now seeing all kinds of shows with a scientific component, like House, which I adore despite the fact that it jumped the shark at the end of its second season. (When you resort to shooting your main character for a cliffhanger finale, you’re desperate. Or lazy.) Still, Hugh Laurie rocks. I’m also a big fan of Bones. But the gold standard, in terms of combining entertainment, good writing and character development with accurate scientific content, is Numb3rs. Granted, it’s more about math than science, but Charlie’s best friend, Larry, is a theoretical physicist, and physics concepts invariably come into play. Come to think of it, Larry ranks as my current favorite fictional physicist.

Lest you begin to think I’m a mass media whore with the attention span of a gnat, I’m a huge fan of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, love the poetry of John Donne and e.e. cummings, and occasionally peruse such weighty tomes as Huw Price’s Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point. So there. That should make up for my addiction to Celebrity Poker Showdown.

Have all the physics cocktails on your site been road-tested?

Yes, but not necessarily by me. I’ve tried several, though. In fact, I should offer a caveat: the drinks featured on my blog are chosen for their scientific themes, not for taste. Or safety. The Quantum Theory, for example, is simply vile (unless you’re really gung-ho about pineapple juice). And I’ve learned not to make a flaming Mad Scientist or Combustible Edison anywhere near a Japanese paper lantern, even if one happens to be outdoors at the time.

The sad truth is that I’m a pathetic lightweight when it comes to alcohol consumption, with a fondness for citrus-y girly drinks. (Triple sec = elixir of the gods.) These days, my drink of choice is the classic Sidecar, although I’m hoping to experiment with a Jellied Gin and Tonic over the holidays – my first foray into molecular mixology.

If we ask nicely, will you create a new cocktail especially for LabLit.com’s readers?

I’m not really a mixologist, just a collector of curious potables. I’ve come across drinks with science themes and drinks with artsy or literary ties – the Sidecar, for example, was a favorite with Hemingway’s crowd. But it’s tough to find a drink that has elements of both. Fortunately, I found the following in The Bartender’s Bible, and have adapted it accordingly:

Listening to the Drums of Feynman

1 oz dark rum
½ oz light rum
1 oz Tia Maria
2 oz light cream
Crushed ice
1/8 tsp nutmeg

In a shaker half-filled with ice cubes, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.

Who dresses more fashionably, you or Jen-Luc?

Jen-Luc Piquant wins hands-down on that score. I clean up quite well when I put my mind to it, but I’m lazy about accessorizing, with a tendency to choose practicality over style. The situation used to be dire: I once met a good friend of mine for dinner, clad in black leggings, a loose, knee-length paisley top under a black Old Navy fleece vest, and sneakers. She looked me over, then said, “I have a question. When you left the house this evening… what the hell were you thinking?” (Ironically, leggings are now back in style. It’s like the late Nineties never happened.)

These days, I make more of an effort to battle Chronic Fashion Entropy Syndrome (CFES). I can put together some respectably chic outfits in a pinch. And I dream of one day being able to afford a Vera Wang gown, although lord knows when I’d have occasion to wear it. So given world enough and time – and a bank account to match – I think I could be quite the fashionista. You know, in an alternate universe.

What’s the most surprising thing about you?

I’m a skeptic who’s fascinated by tarot cards and enjoys doing readings for friends just for fun. That’s a bit surprising, I guess. I don’t ascribe to them (or myself) any particular powers, I just think the decks are incredibly well-designed, and rich with symbolism. A reading is akin to telling a story, based on the meanings traditionally associated with specific cards. It’s also an art form: lots of different themed decks have been created over the centuries, and some of the designs are quite lovely.

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

Fun with tarot cards aside, I’m not much of a prognosticator, although I’ve definitely got a couple more books in me. Beyond that, who can say? Half the fun of life is taking things as they come and savoring surprise. But no matter what I’m doing in ten years, I guarantee writing will be part of it.

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