Paul Preuss recently returned to writing speculative and historical fiction about science after years as a full time science writer, covering all fields but specializing in physics, cosmology, accelerators, photon science, and, more recently, engineering. Previously he wrote novels, science articles, and book reviews by the hundreds. And before that he made documentary films and worked on network TV specials—his first and shortest professional film was “Over, Through, Around” for the premier episode of Sesame Street. He was a drama major at Yale, where he graduated with honors as a Scholar of the House in film and drama. Preuss’s father was an air force officer, and he grew up in various places, with the longest stay at Sandia Base in New Mexico.
This one is in the first person. You’re welcome to use it, but it’s up to you to get rid of the I’s.
Even stories set in alternate or wholly imaginary worlds get their start from personal experience. As an air force brat I grew up all over, starting with Albany, Georgia (where I was born in 1942), with longer stays in Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Northern Virginia. One summer, age eleven, I stayed with my grandparents at their place in the Hill Country west of San Antonio, a region then really dark at night. In a little astronomy book my grandmother gave me I read about the Perseid meteor shower and pestered her to wake me up at 1:00 am, when the show would be at its height. A night sky filled with ribbons of fire hooked me for good.
From the mid-forties to the late fifties we lived near Washington and on Sandia Base in Albuquerque, where my father’s work was testing nuclear weapons; it frequently took him to Nevada and the Pacific. I liked the scientists I met, mostly genial eggheads, but as I grew older I began to mull the moral choices implicit in weapons work and, as it would turn out, in almost every branch of science.
I made a lot of amateur movies in my teens and became obsessed with Sergei Eisenstein. During the 1960s I was one of two students at Yale who made the first films there for academic credit; I also attended the Cours de Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne and studied with Jean Rouch, creator of cinema verité (he borrowed the label from Dziga Vertov), at the Musée de l’Homme; the introduction was courtesy of Sid Mintz, who also introduced me to anthropology. In 1966 I graduated cum laude as a Scholar of the House in film and modern drama with a forty-five minute film, Talking of Michelangelo, about a painter, her neuroscientist husband, and her lover, an art historian; it was, let us say, heavily influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni.
In 1966-67 I worked in marketing research for BBDO advertising in New York—but except for some of the ad campaigns, my experience bore no relation whatever to Mad Men—and later became creative director and production manager of King Screen Productions in Seattle, where I produced commercials and wrote and directed award-winning documentaries and short films. My first and shortest was “Over, Through, Around” for the 1969 premier of Sesame Street. After I made the film version of Garrett Hardin’s classic 1968 Science editorial, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (a film remarkably still available in some libraries), I spent a year directing educational media for the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in Boulder, Colorado.
I came to the Bay Area as a freelance documentary film producer, writer, and editor; projects included Emmy-winning prime-time entertainment specials for CBS and NBC. While working with Richard Chew on a film script for Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness I started my first novel, The Gates of Heaven, considerably less ambitious than hers (okay, it was pure space opera). My daughter was an explainer at the Exploratorium during this period and I wrote about its extraordinary founder, Frank Oppenheimer, for Science 83, and also briefly edited Exploratorium Magazine at the behest of K.C. Cole.
Between film editing jobs I gradually became a full-time writer of science articles and criticism for magazines and newspapers such as Discover and The Washington Post, and of fiction – thirteen novels and a handful of short stories in all. Several science articles were inspired by research for the novels, incidentally resulting in my only scientific publication: while investigating superhard materials for Core I posed some questions to the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann and found myself coauthor, by his courtesy, of the research letter “Possible Hard Materials Based on Interpenetrating Diamond-like Networks,” with Davide Proserpio and him, for the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
In 1997 I joined Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and wrote many hundreds of press releases, articles, and other pieces for Berkeley Lab and DOE publications. Miscellaneous projects included creating the Lab’s nationally recognized information campaign, “Did You Ever Wonder?”; editing the online science magazine Science@Berkeley Lab; managing videos including the Lab’s award-winning Joy of Discovery, directed by Bob Elfstrom; and representing the Lab as one of the original community partners, from the onset, of KQED’s revolutionary multiplatform science series, QUEST.
Halfway through my first year at the Lab the Supernova Cosmology Project announced that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (as did the High-z Supernova Search Team, shortly thereafter), propelled by something that would soon be named dark energy. Very early on Tuesday mornings during the second week of October I followed the news from Stockholm and got the media events started when first George Smoot—in 2006, for studies of the cosmic microwave background—and then Saul Perlmutter—in 2011, for the accelerating universe—were named winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Dark energy appears to constitute three-quarters of everything in the universe, but will it ever inspire a good novel? Not by me. I know too much about it, which—like what everyone else knows so far—is almost nothing.
The Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB) lists information about short stories, articles, and reviews that appeared in science fiction magazines, including many in Charles Brown’s Locus. Most are originals; some are adaptations or reprints from other publications.
Dionysos kylix, Attic black figure ca 530 BCE, signed “Exekias made it,” Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich
Visualization of a Higgs boson event with two energetic photons, ATLAS Experiment, © 2013 CERN
Paul Preuss photos by Debra Turner