Going Out

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Award-winning science writer Jacob Berkowitz talks who we are and where we come from at Writers Fest

Jacob Berkowitz wants to change the way you think about science. The Almonte-based author, science writer, and journalist has spent the better part of the last two decades covering everything from fossilized excrement (his book Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and Others) Left Behind won the 2007 American Institute of Physics Children’s Book Award), to doughnut patents, to vasectomies. But it’s not just unconventional subject matter that sets Berkowitz’s writing apart. It’s the use of storytelling techniques – plot and character development, metaphors and anecdotes – that makes his work so refreshingly readable. Erica Eades caught up with Berkowitz ahead of his Ottawa International Writers Festival appearance.

Jacob Berkowitz will present a lecture entitled “Our Origin in the Stars” as part of the New Science Series at the Writers Fest.

What led you to science writing?
I’ve always had a love and a fascination for both science and writing. I would read someone like Stephen Jay Gould – he’s a famous evolutionary biologist and a fantastic writer – who would start a story with a single fossil, then tie that into the history of paleontology and larger cultural issues going on at the time. For me, that was a much more compelling approach to science, and really reflected what science is. It’s not something that’s apart from the rest of society; it’s deeply embedded in our nature.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars?
The Stardust Revolution is the third great scientific revolution of the past 500 years. In traditional thinking, the first of those revolutions is the Copernican Revolution, and the Darwinian Revolution followed that… The Stardust Revolution is basically the realization that life on Earth is not disconnected from the rest of the universe. Life on Earth is a cosmic phenomenon; it’s the result of processes that happen in outer space. The implications are that if there’s a cosmic ecology, then there are lots of other living planets out there.

How were you introduced to this idea?
I read a quote by a radio astronomer. In the middle of this press release, about halfway down, he had a short quote that said, “We now observe a universal prebiotic chemistry.” What he was saying is that, wherever we look now with radio telescopes, you get the signal of molecules. You might think these are going to be weird combinations, but they are actually the building blocks of life on Earth. We haven’t found any other living beings, but we see evidence of the footsteps leading up to it everywhere we look. That, to me, was astounding.

The book focuses on so-called “stardust revolutionaries,” which includes Nobel laureate Charles Townes and Canadian astronomer David Charbonneau. Why did you feel it was important to share their stories?
People often think of science as an encyclopedia – it’s just a bunch of facts. On the one hand, it is. But science is also a process; it’s something that is done by human beings. I coined the term “extreme genealogy” because these folks are like genealogists looking at a family tree. They often don’t know it when they’re doing it, but each of them is putting in a little piece of this vast jigsaw puzzle. It’s only when you step back years later — or someone like me comes along who is not an expert in any one field but is good at pulling the pieces together — that we can see the bigger story.

When you’re promoting your children’s books you’re known for putting on elaborate, high-energy performances. What should audiences expect from your upcoming talk?
The same! Exciting, engaging, inspiring, awesome – I’m basically drawing on my experience as a performer. I’m developing a TED-style talk that’s really designed to deal with the big questions in a way that’s accessible to people. This isn’t something that’s metaphysical in the sense of being fantasy. Ultimately, it’s something that is very personal. It’s about who and what we are, and where we’ve come from. It’s the kind of thing you think about when you’re falling asleep at night. So, what does that all mean? I don’t know, but I think it’s an amazing thing to think about.

Berkowtiz will present a lecture entitled “Our Origin in the Stars” as part of the New Science Series at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Sunday, October 28, at 2 p.m. $10-$17. Knox Presbyterian Church, 120 Lisgar St., www.writersfestival.org.