How I Became a
Writing is my second career,
but it was my first love. As a kid, all I wanted to be was a writer. I
wrote "books" that my mother typed up when I was as young as five. In fourth
grade, when we were expected to write three or four reports during the year, I
wrote a hundred and one. Clearly I had the writing bug at a
academic career took a different direction. I loved mathematics too, and earned
a doctorate from Princeton. I taught math for six years at Duke University
and seven years at Kenyon College in Ohio. I enjoyed it, but I have to say I
never felt that teaching was my true calling.
When I was denied tenure at Kenyon (see the long story
here), it was both a wake-up call and a chance to
get things right. The most valuable advice I received was: "Think of what you
wanted to do when you were a child, and try to make that happen." So when I found out about the
Science Communication Program at
the University of California at Santa Cruz, suddenly all the pieces of the
puzzle clicked together. I could be a writer, as I had always wanted to be, and still make use of my
knowledge of math and science. At UCSC I learned about
journalism and made the contacts I needed to hit the ground running.
An internship at
American Scientist in the summer of
1997 gave me some practical experience in writing and editing with a deadline. Since the fall of 1997, I have been a
full-time freelance writer.
Some of the magazines I have written for are
New Scientist. For the
spring of 2007 I am the writer in residence at the Mathematical Sciences
Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, California.
The Story of The
The idea for my first book,
The Big Splat, or How
Our Moon Came to Be,
came out of a meeting that I covered in 1998 for Science magazine. It was
a conference about the origin of Earth and the Moon, and I was the only reporter
there. In three days of talks, I was astounded to hear over and over about the
giant impact theory of the Moon's origin — a theory that was completely unfamiliar to
me, and yet was really the only one seriously discussed at this conference. I was amazed that
the experts had more or less agreed on where the Moon came from, and yet no
one outside the planetary science community knew about it! There was clearly
a failure of communication between scientists and the public. It was up to me to
bridge the gap.
Writing the book was a
lot of fun. It was the perfect size for a first book. It came out to be twelve
chapters long, and I had about twelve months to write it. That meant
that I had to tell one in-depth story a month, which was just the right
pace for me. I enjoyed the feel of working on a long-term project, as a change
of pace from jumping around from one article to another.
A special treat, which
I did not at all anticipate, was doing historical research with
original documents. To research one chapter I traveled to Cambridge, England, to
delve into the Charles Darwin papers. (What does Charles Darwin have to do with
the Moon? Read my book to find out!) It's hard to express the thrill of holding
in my hands a letter that Darwin sent to his son a century ago, realizing that I
might be he first person to read it since then.
The Big Splat
came out in the spring of 2003, and received excellent reviews. Booklist,
a magazine published by the American Library Association, named it as one of
their Editor's Choices for 2003 — an honor accorded to only 63 books that year,
and only four science books.
Even with great reviews, a book like The Big
Splat does not make its author wealthy. So it was a while before I could really
contemplate writing another one. However, in 2005 two opportunities came along
that I could not pass up.
First, John Wiley &
Sons, the publisher of The Big Splat, invited me to collaborate with two
geologists, Brian Skinner and Barbara Murck, on a freshman-level textbook called
Visualizing Geology. This is part of a new series of Wiley textbooks that
are oriented towards visual learners. The collaboration went very well — Brian and Barb were
very tolerant of the sometimes crazy suggestions of
their neophyte colleague. In the end, I learned a lot of geology, and Wiley got
a textbook that I hope is livelier than the usual classroom fare.
After two books on
other sciences, I was eager to
write one about mathematics. Fortunately, the American Mathematical Society was looking for a writer
to take over a series of slim books, called
What's Happening in the Mathematical Sciences, oriented to a general
audience. The first five volumes in
this series had been written very ably by Barry Cipra (who likes to joke that I
am "the other math writer"). But for one reason or
another he was not able to complete volume six. I did some very light updating
and editing of the six chapters he had written, and then added four new ones to
round out the book.
Geology and What's Happening were published in early 2007. So now I
am wondering where fate and the muses will take me next!
Everything Else You
Wanted to Know About Dana Mackenzie (and more)
As you might guess from the above photo, I
am also a chess player. I have been a member of the U.S. Chess Federation since 1971 (the
beginning of the "Fischer boom"). I was the state champion of North Carolina in
1985 and 1987, and earned the National Master title in 1988. In 2006, I joined
the team of master teachers at www.chesslecture.com.
I record two video lectures a month. Ironically, I find teaching chess to be more
satisfying than teaching math was. Perhaps it is because I know that my
"students" at ChessLecture are already interested.
My other hobbies
include music and dancing. I started folk dancing in college, and years later I met
my wonderful wife Kay that way. A couple of years ago I began to learn hula,
which is the most difficult form of dance I have ever tried. The
of Santa Cruz is a warm, supportive, and family-oriented group. I strongly encourage any of
you who have ever experienced the aloha spirit — especially you kane
(men) — to find your local halau and give it a try. It really is
different from your preconceptions.
Finally, no biography would be complete
without mentioning my wife Kay and the rest of my family, three cats (Pixel,
Chutney, and Maikai) and one dog, Willie the papillon. Kay supported me through
my career change 100 percent. She is now working full-time at
her own business. She is a quilting professional and has written and published six quilting books. If you have any interest in quilting, please check out her Web page at