Dr. Fred Writer's Links


Institute of Children's Literature Chat Transcript
Thursday, September 28, 2000

"Writing for Children About Nature, Science, and Technology" with Alfred Bortz (aka Dr. Fred)

Moderator is Kristi Holl, author of 24 books, 100+ articles, a writing teacher for 15 years, and the web editor for this site.

Dr. Fred is Alfred Bortz, author of numerous books on nature, science and technology for children. Dr. Fred's books and articles tell exciting true stories of discovery, technology, and people. His question-packed web site can be explored at http://www.fredbortz.com.

Other names are viewers who had questions.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to tonight's special interview with Alfred Bortz, better known as Dr. Fred, who will be talking to us about writing for children in the science, technology and nature fields. I hope you've already checked out his web site. If not, you'll want to do that as soon as our interview is over. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator, and it's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Fred. Welcome!

Dr. Fred: Hello everyone. I apologize for seeming so slow, but I assure you my mind is operating faster than my computer. Anyway, I'm really pleased to be here to share my wisdom, and occasional typos, too. Let's go!

Moderator: I've had such fun exploring your web site, even though science is NOT my strong suit. Fred, how did you get started writing, and how did you come to specialize in science writing?

Dr. Fred: I have been a scientist by inclination all my life. I have also enjoyed writing, especially imaginative or humorous poetry and prose. Strangely, however, when I began writing for children, I never dreamed of writing about science. That was reinforced when I sold my second assignment in the Institute of Children's Literature correspondence course in 1978 to the Christian Science Monitor children's page, breaking all the rules of the course and what is marketable. It was a long, very Suessish story-poem with an unintentionally religious chorus (Though you ask what you want,/ You will get what you need"). I followed that sale with another to the Monitor, a story-poem with a more conventional style and language about "Gumsky," my imaginary friend. My mentor, the wonderful Alvin Tresselt (who just died in July), tried to get me to combine my gift for writing with my passion for science, without much success. I saw writing as a diversion from my work. It took several years, but I finally realized that what I was really seeking was not different subject matter, but a different audience. I took great pleasure in sending Alvin an autographed copy of my third book, Catastrophe!, as an eightieth birthday present -- and he never said, "I told you so!"

Moderator: Do you juggle your writing with another job or raising a family?

Dr. Fred: I began writing part time, but it had a powerful allure for me. For a number of years, I managed to find a way to change my work to accommodate more writing, eventually shifting from university research to working with pre-college students and teachers. I also realized that I was working my way out onto a limb, and eventually I had to make some choices. I left the engineering college of one university for the school of education of another. That job didn't work out, and I decided I was ready to try full-time writing. If my children were not self-supporting and if I had not built up a good pension fund, I never could have taken the risk and the substantial cut in income.

Now I occasionally juggle my writing with other work -- like teaching a college physics lab this semester -- but most of my time is spent in tasks related to writing (including teaching it). I can't earn my full living from children's writing yet, but I'm getting closer. I've also built up a nice sideline, reviewing (for newspapers) science-related books for adults.

Moderator: Anyone visiting your web site for kids is struck by your enthusiasm for your various subjects and projects. How important is that enthusiastic energy?

Dr. Fred: Blatant self-promotion follows :-) That's www.fredbortz.com, of course! Everyone needs a secret weapon, and enthusiasm is mine. I am passionate about science and technology, but also about what kids need to become worthy people. Not only does that make my writing work, but it also sustains me through the many hard knocks this business delivers. I tell my students that rejection slips are writers' badges of honor, and I am a well-decorated veteran. In the book business, you also face a number of other points at which projects can go off track. Just when I think I've seen them all, along comes another. Thank goodness for enthusiasm!

Moderator: Do we need degrees in the scientific field to write science or nature articles?

Dr. Fred: You don't need a degree, but you need to be well-read and serious about the subject matter. You need to understand how to research a topic thoroughly, which includes asking and following productive questions. It's a matter of knowing how to learn and adopting an attitude of quality and integrity: your audience and your subject matter deserve nothing less than your best effort.

Moderator: How do you stay "on top" of all the current scientific developments? How do you find the time?

Dr. Fred: I stay on top of some, not all, of the current scientific developments by reading Science News every week, daily e-mail from professional societies pointing me to on-line articles from reputable sources, and book-review assignments from top newspapers and magazines. (I'm a regular contributor to the Dallas Morning News and other papers with bylines, and to Publishers Weekly without bylines.) Like anyone else, I concentrate on topics of personal interest, but I do enjoy sampling other fields on occasion. I'm not "on top" of those, but I'm not left behind in the dust, either.

Moderator: Is your research on the Internet at all?

Dr. Fred: Yes, I read a lot there, but I'm extremely careful about my sources. The most valuable on-line research for me has been in finding images and photos for my books. I negotiated a photo/image research fee for MARTIAN FOSSILS ON EARTH? THE STORY OF METEORITE ALH84001 (1997) and my upcoming COLLISION COURSE! COSMIC IMPACTS AND LIFE ON EARTH. I found some images for both books that a less involved photo researcher wouldn't have recognized as uniquely valuable -- and uniquely suited for my vision of the books.

Tweaker: Dr. Fred, exactly what are some of those "other points at which projects can go off track" you mentioned?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Tweaker. That's tweaking the speaker all right. I'll cite my first introduction to the world of book publishing. It was a book called ANATOMY OF A COMPUTER, but it never made it into print, after three revisions. The problem was that there was a glut of BAD computer books, getting awful reviews. The market dried up, and the publisher didn't care how good mine was anymore. Fortunately, I had a letter from the editor in writing that the book would be published, which I made as a condition of the final revision. It took years, but I finally got the balance of my advance. I've never had a serious disagreement with an editor, but I know many authors have. That can sidetrack a book. But enough of the hard-luck stories. This business is too great to dwell on those!

diana l miller: My husband and I do a lot of traveling like to Carter Caves, Kentucky, and we go through the caves and hike the trails. There is a lot there and I've got pictures. Will this make good stories for children, like maybe nature stories?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Diana. I think that has a lot of potential, but you need a clear angle to make it interesting. For example, my friend Sandy Downs has just begun to publish books based on her interest in geology. She's got one coming out from a regional publisher in Florida about sinkholes, with some of her own photos. I personally love photo essays, and another friend, Catherine Paladino, has done some wonderful stuff, sometimes combining other people's famous poetry with her nature photography. So you'd need to find a specific angle to use your cave material.

Moderator: How important is scientific accuracy if you're writing science fiction? (For example, Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME is full of science facts.)

Dr. Fred: Fiction works only when the story is plausible, so accuracy is critical. Nonfiction can be implausible if it is true. I have a quotation from J.B.S. Haldane at my desk: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we can suppose." For example, in several of my books, I tell the story of the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. When the first hints of that event were observed in a thin clay layer in the early 1980s, it was an outrageous but testable hypothesis. As people looked for evidence to disprove it -- a standard scientific approach -- more evidence turned up to support it. Within a decade, all the evidence pointed to a huge, unnoticed, but detectable crater (by careful measurements of small deviations in local gravity and magnetic field) at the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula as "the Crater of Doom."

Before that discovery and the 1994 impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter (another of my favorite stories), the movies Deep Impact and Armageddon never would have been plausible. They still had areas where knowledgeable scientists could nitpick, but the flaws weren't large enough to discourage the general viewers. Sometimes, you can inject a controlled amount of fantasy into a science fiction story, as long as it reflects a new understanding of science that we don't have today. Scientists who believe firmly in Einstein's work based on the speed of light as an insurmountable limit can still enjoy Star Trek and its warp speed. People, including me, who believe that ESP can be explained by natural phenomena, can still enjoy "The Force" in Star Wars.

Moderator. I know that you have a doctorate in physics. How do you manage to simplify knowledge at the doctorate level into something children can truly understand?

Dr. Fred: I don't present doctoral level knowledge. I present phenomena as seen through the eyes of my readers. One of a good writer's most important skills is to see the story through the readers' eyes. I may have a sophisticated education, but at my core I am still twelve or thirteen, ready for new experiences and challenging anything an adult tries to force down my throat. I write for that kid, and I treat that kid with respect. I also look for human stories in the science, and I connect those at the age level I am writing for.

Moderator: Your book CATASTROPHE! GREAT ENGINEERING FAILURE -- AND SUCCESS was designated a "Selector's Choice" by the National Science Teachers Association and a Children's Book Council List of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children for 1996. Can you tell us a little about this book--and why you wrote it?

Dr. Fred: I was working with a group of engineering professors at Carnegie Mellon University who knew about my first two (teen) books, SUPERSTUFF! (materials science) and MIND TOOLS (artificial intelligence). I often joke that the editor asked me to write about artificial intelligence because no one with real intelligence would take the job.... Anyway, they asked me why I never tried to explain engineering to young readers, and I told them I never could find the right slant. The topic seemed too broad and diverse. Then they invited a noted professor from Duke University, Henry Petroski, to speak. His topic was his new book, TO ENGINEER IS HUMAN: THE ROLE OF FAILURE IN SUCCESSFUL DESIGN. I had my angle. I read his book and others (such as the more pessimistic NORMAL ACCIDENTS by Robert Perrow), and I broadened my outlook beyond Petroski's civil engineering focus. I had the title first. Then I posted a notice on soem Carnegie Mellon electronic bulletin boards, asking for "favorite catastrophes." I got a few examples that I used in the book, including a reminder of a story I already knew about, the origin of Murphy's Law.

In my introduction, I tell the Murphy's Law story, pointing out what the real Murphy originally meant: You can succeed if you pay attention to what can go wrong. Each of the subsequent chapters includes a mention of that famous principle and a discussion of famous catastrophic (meaning sudden and unpredictable in course) failures, some of which were tragic, and what we learned from them. Topics include the Kansas City Hyatt skywalk collapse, the bridge known as Galloping Gertie, plane crashes, the Challenger explosion, nuclear reactor failures, the Great Northeast Blackout, and the Johnstown Flood where more than 2000 people died because others did not respect the power of failure.

Moderator: How can you tell what scientific concepts are appropriate (and not too hard) for a particular age level?

Dr. Fred: I can't, but I don't believe the "experts" who say they can. I just try writing for that audience, viewing the phenomenon through their eyes. In the end, if they see it as a natural phenomenon rather than magic, I have succeeded. When they're older, they can bring other experiences to bear and view it with more sophistication.

Moderator: There's an excellent weather site link at your personal web site. How did that come about?

Dr. Fred: It began when I had an assignment to interview J. Marshall Shepherd, an up-and-coming NASA meteorologist, for the opening of a middle school textbook on weather. When he told me he had won second place in the Georgia State Science Fair as a sixth grader for building and using a simple weather station, I asked him if he would be able to reconstruct the project for a book. He became an enthusiastic collaborator. The result was Dr. Fred's Weather Watch: Create and Run Your Own Weather Station. Marshall supplied the weather links, and I followed each one of them, to make sure they worked and to add annotations. They're in the book also, since a middle schooler building a weather station today would have access to a world -- literally -- of weather data, including some supplied by instruments Marshall designed for NASA satellites. In case anyone wants a shortcut, go to www.fredbortz.com/WeatherLinks.htm for the links, or to www.fredbortz.com/WeatherWatch.htm for information and a sample chapter from the book.

Moderator: Excellent! I also heard that you were involved with a group who turned ships into floating science classrooms. Can you tell us about that?

Dr. Fred: At my web site, my picture appears with a cap and this question: "Why is Dr. Fred wearing a cap? Is he bald?" That's not just a cap; that's a Pittsburgh Voyager cap! Dr. Fred is proud of his association with Pittsburgh Voyager, a non-profit corporation that has transformed two U.S. Navy training vessels into floating science classrooms on the three rivers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Fred was an active member of Voyager's Board of Directors from just after its founding in 1993 through 1999, and he is still a member of its Education Committee.

Moderator: Do you need to be an expert on a subject before you write about it? If so, how can you do that?

Dr. Fred: The answer relates to one of my favorite words: focus. You have to become an expert on the narrow subject of your article. Your knowledge of the broader subject can be more shallow, though you need to understand the major issues of the field.... Since the best articles are well-focused, you can become expert by allowing your enthusiasm to carry you deeper in that one area. For example, I wrote an entire book about one piece of rock the size of a potato, MARTIAN FOSSILS ON EARTH? THE STORY OF METEORITE ALH84001.... I never took a formal geology, biology, or astronomy course, even in high school -- I took chemistry and two years of physics, but I am an avid reader of magazine articles and books on the subjects. When I heard about the piece of Mars that fell to Earth and had possible signatures of four billion year-old bacterial fossils, questions of all sorts started flowing in my head.... Those questions formed the chapter titles, and the question mark at the end of the book's title was key to finding the focus I needed.

Moderator: Fred, I am very "science challenged," and in case any of our viewers are like me, I'd like to cover some BASIC basics. I need for you to distinguish between science, technology, and nature. First, can you define what you mean by technology?

Dr. Fred: While I'm at it, I'll anticipate your next questions, about science and nature, which means I'm answering a broad question, but I guess the title of this chat set me up for it.

Here's the five-minute version. I could talk for an hour on this. People usually think of technology as a very modern thing, but the first stone tools of early hominid species were enormous technological breakthroughs. Technology consists of tools and methods to solve problems or to perform tasks more effectively.

My first book, SUPERSTUFF!, and my upcoming book, TECHNO-MATTER, both discuss the technology of artificial materials (going back to the first ceramic pottery) as well as the science that can be applied in creating such materials. Technology does not have to be scientific, but it flourishes when scientific thinking is applied....

Which leads us to science... Science is a way of studying the universe. It includes both theorizing and observing, and it includes a systematic approach that, when followed, does not permit people to allow their expectations to color their observations. It is a tribute to imperfect people that they can do as well as they do with science, but biases are always there to be discovered by others (who are also biased)....

and on to nature ... Good nature writing, on the other hand, has a clear bias. It deals more with observation and awe than with theorizing and measuring. Without an inherent respect for our planet and the life on it, nature writing falls flat. My own writing is usually scientific, but with an underlying naturalistic or humanistic tone....

In MARTIAN FOSSILS ON EARTH? THE STORY OF METEORITE ALH84001, my upcoming COLLISION COURSE! COSMIC IMPACTS AND LIFE ON EARTH, and an in-progress picture book tentatively titled SOLAR BIRTH TO SPACESHIP EARTH: POEMS AND STORIES ABOUT OUR PLANET, for example, I speak about the amazing sequence of events that led to formation of life as we know it on this planet and probably elsewhere in the universe.... It is truly awesome, and my writing occasionally takes on almost a religious fervor -- though I don't need to invoke a supreme being to respond that way.

Moderator: What if a writer loves science (natural, physical, chemical, whatever) but has no degrees. Can this science enthusiast find a niche in the science/nature/technology field of writing? If so, how?

Dr. Fred: The key word is "enthusiast." In some niches of science, especially specialized observational areas like comet hunting, amateurs contribute genuinely important results. Likewise an enthusiast can become expert in a narrow subfield while developing only a shallow knowledge of the broader field.

If you develop such expertise and decide you are ready to share it with eager young minds, contact one or more major experts in the field -- by mail is best -- and tell them that you will be writing an article for children on their favorite subject. Be sure to say something about why each particular expert's work intrigues you and will intrigue young readers. Ask if they will consent to a short phone or e-mail interview. If they agree -- and you'll be surprised how generous people are when they expect to be reaching the next generation -- stick to your time or question limit.

Try to have at least one question that will get them talking directly to your audience by taking them back to their own childhood. You'll get plenty of the kind of tidbits you will need to build a fascinating and well-focused article. If you want to see the results from when I did something like that with a number of scientists in fields where my background was limited at first, read TO THE YOUNG SCIENTIST: REFLECTIONS ON DOING AND LIVING SCIENCE.

Moderator: How would you go about "becoming an expert" once you decided on a niche for yourself?

Dr. Fred: You've got that backwards. You read or hear about something, and your interests keep carrying you deeper. One question follows another, and you eagerly pursue them. Before you know it, you're well on your way to expertise. You don't plan to find a niche. The niche finds fertile soil in your mind.

Moderator: Would you suggest writing on many topics for a specific age group, or taking a specific topic and writing many books and articles for various age groups?

Dr. Fred: Some people are more attuned to a particular age group, while others can relate to many ages. Some people have broad interests, while others settle in on one. You have to figure out where you fit for yourself. Then be prepared to have your place change over time. Right now, I'm in a state of flux. Besides having some ideas for more middle grade science books, I'm also thinking of some picture books, some teen biographies, and a coming of age novel where a boy confronts issues of religion and science. I can't do all of these, but I have to give myself an opportunity to wander around the intellectual terrain before I settle into something new.

Moderator: About selling in the scientific field: is it always with a query for articles and outline for books?

Dr. Fred: It depends how well established you are. I can sometimes get away with a one-page letter (and a table of contents for books) with an editor who knows me well. But with others, I need the whole package. I might have to write an article "on spec," for a magazine I really want to break into. A book proposal might have to include a summary plus sample chapter or two, a research bibliography, a market analysis, and a resume.

NMS2888: I have a hard time writing nonfiction. I always feel like I'm stealing someone else's ideas. Got any tips to overcome this?

Dr. Fred: Hi, NMS. Nothing wrong with stealing a good idea and making it your own. I have two examples. If you were here when I talked about CATASTROPHE!, you would have heard me "say" that I got the idea from a great book for adults. I even stole Petroski's angle, but I looked for different material to broaden it beyond civil engineering. DR. FRED'S WEATHER WATCH is full of projects that could have been done in the 1950s, and there are some books in the library that have most or all of the same projects. I livened it up with the Dr. Fred persona -- helped along by a great illustrator who turned my photo into a caricature -- and I brought it up to date with Marshall Shepherd's weather links. I also presented Marshall as a great model of the kind of person they might become as they progress from Weather Watcher to "Weather Weenie" to Meteorologist.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt here, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you so much, Dr. Fred, for coming and sharing some fascinating stories with us tonight. I can see how your enthusiasm for your subject matter -- and your curious mind -- translate into excitement in your children's books. Thank for coming tonight!

Dr. Fred: It's been my pleasure, Kristi, and the rest of you. As I tell youngsters who e-mail me, I hope you always follow your questions! Scientifically yours, Dr. Fred.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on October l2 when we'll be discussing "Sports Writing for Kids: More than Scores" with Thomas S. Owens. Discover how to highlight the psychology, inspiration and humor of sports for young readers -- from the author of more than 40 books, including the six-book series Game Plan (21st Century Books). And until then, good night, everyone!



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