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Anne Wallingford, WordSmith

People to Meet

An Interview with Eric Schulman, Ph.D.


Titles: Science Humorist, Author, Astronomer, Rocket Scientist
Degrees: Ph.D. in astronomy, University of Michigan
M.S. in astronomy, University of Michigan
B.S. in astrophysics, UCLA

Interview Questions and Answers
Establishing Credentials

Q: What you would like the public to know about your background? What is your professional goal(s)?
Eric: I grew up in Los Angeles, where it's easy to see the sea but not so easy to see the stars. Although I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a scientist, I thought that I would be an oceanographer or a cetologist (someone who studies whales and dolphins). But when I was ten or so I discovered science fiction, which contains a few dolphin and whale stories but is mostly about space. And a couple of years later Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos came out and I was hooked on astronomy.

I went to UCLA and met the future Dr. Caroline Cox in our first astrophysics class. She graduated on time in June of 1990 and went off to the University of Michigan. I graduated a quarter late in December and started at U of M on January 1, 1991. I was afraid that Los Angeles to Ann Arbor would be a big adjustment to make in the middle of winter, but I think that my body thought I was on an extended skiing vacation because I wasn't bothered by it very much. Until—in March—I flew down to sunny Puerto Rico for an observing run. When I came back, it felt COLD, even though I had been fine for the previous three months.

In 1992 Caroline and I received our master's degrees, and in 1993 we got married. We finished our PhDs in 1995 and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. I started a postdoc at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and Caroline started a position as a research assistant professor at the University of Virginia. Before we left, I submitted my first piece of science humor to AIR. This haiku summarizing my five years of PhD research appeared in mini-AIR (an electronic mailing list) and was later published in The Best of Annals of Improbable Research.

Over the next few years I got involved in different astronomy research, in computer science research, in teaching astronomy classes at UVa, and in writing more science humor. Add to this being the father of a toddler (Emily was born soon after we arrived in Charlottesville) and applying for permanent jobs in astronomy and it made for a very busy life. In the end, I concluded that I really didn't want to be in academia anymore. I left the field last year and am now working in industry for 40 hours a week and as an author in my spare time. I'm also still involved in some astronomy research from time to time (mostly the study of other galaxies and of the center of our own Galaxy).

My current professional goal is for A Briefer History of Time to do well enough that I will be able to write more funny and educational books about science and history. And if Briefer History happens to become a bestseller, I certainly won't complain.

On Juggling Many Hats

Q:You have spent quite a bit of your time, these past few years, doing writing and speaking. You were also an instructor at the University of Virginia, and a research associate at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. How do you cope with juggling so many hats?
Eric: As my previous answer indicates, I coped with juggling so many hats by dropping a few. Unfortunately, one of the hats that dropped was teaching. I really liked teaching introductory astronomy, and I loved developing and teaching my Life in the Universe course. As an author I've been able to give hour-long talks that include a lot of the content of this course, and that's been a lot of fun. But I miss getting to know students and seeing their ideas about life, the universe, and everything, develop over the course of a few months. I hope that I'll be able to teach again in the not-too-distant future.

Reflections about Writing

Q: What was the most difficult article for you to write? Why?
Eric: The most difficult science humor article was the first, "How to Write a Scientific Paper." At the time I was trying to turn my Ph.D. thesis into journal articles, and the academic style of writing was starting to get to me. So I began writing "How to Write" as a complete parody of astronomy research papers. The editor of AIR (Marc Abrahams) thought—correctly, of course—that a lot of the original paper wouldn't be funny to the average reader. I had to step back and think about what parts of the paper were funny and would show people what scientific papers can be like and what parts would only be funny to research astronomers. It ended up being about half as long as the original, but much better.

Q: How have you coped with writer's block?
Eric: Well, right now I'm coping by eating pretzels and just typing whatever comes into my head. When I know that I need to write something in particular and it's just not working, I'll often listen to music. But in most of my science humor writing I try not to push it. Normally an idea will come to me—either at random or because of something that I read or experience—and I'll jot down some notes and write it up as soon as I can. For example, I came up with the idea of a Martha Stewart-like cooking show on making stars when I was taking a shower one morning. I end up with surprisingly good first drafts that way. This doesn't work nearly as well with longer chapters, so I may find myself listening to a lot of music and eating a lot of pretzels when/if I write a more traditional book than Briefer History.

Reflections about Science Education

Q: All too often, people consider science to be boring, or too difficult to understand. You have effectively used humor to breakdown some of this resistance. Do you have any suggestions for middle school and high school classroom teachers?
Eric: My first suggestion is more of a plea for elementary school teachers: Please do not be afraid of science! A lot of people—even teachers—are afraid of science and they just don't need to be. I think that the biggest problem is that they are afraid to not know the answer, but one of the main points of science is that you never know all the answers! So I would strongly suggest teachers to encourage their students to ask questions. Sometimes you won't know the answer, but these days, with the World Wide Web, you can almost always find out something about the current state of knowledge regarding almost any question.

In my Life in the Universe class at the University of Virginia, my students would often ask me questions to which I didn't know the answer. Just say, "Great question, I'll find out for you" and talk about it the next day. Of course, the best way is to say, "Great question, how would you go about finding the answer to that?" It can be difficult to do this with 30+ students and a set curriculum that you have to cover, but I think that the rewards are worth it.

My second suggestion is to try to make science fun. Whether you do this by using humor, or by bringing in hands-on experiments that the students can play with, or by discussing the science of something they are really interested in (like Star Wars or U.F.O.s or whatever), it's important that science class be more than memorization. Science is a process of discovery, and science teaching at its best is a process of showing students how they themselves can discover and understand things about the universe.

Overcoming Career Challenges

Q: In your professional career, what have been some of the difficulties you have faced?
Eric: In my career as an astronomer, the biggest difficulty I faced was not being able to get a permanent position in astronomy. Last year I had five interviews for tenure-track positions at small colleges and universities, but the job offers all went to people who had gotten their PhDs before me and who had more years of teaching experience. My wife had a similar experience, and so we were confronted with a choice: 1) Stay in the field by moving to new temporary positions every year or two and keep applying for permanent positions until we got one (or preferably two, one for each of us), or 2) Leave the field, settle down in one place, and enjoy the good parts of being professional astronomers on the side.

We decided on the latter course. I'm still writing science humor and science popularizations and doing a bit of astronomical research. I would like to teach astronomy again at the college level (perhaps one course a year), but I haven't yet made a concerted effort to ask nearby colleges whether or not they would be interested.

Q: What has been the most challenging aspect of being a writer?
Eric: So far, the most challenging aspect has been trying to figure out what my next book should be about. I want it to be funny, I want it to be educational, I want it to be thought provoking and I want it to be something that will actually get published. Plus I would ideally like it to be easy to write.

Q: What have you learned to do, or not to do, as a writer (or instructor, or researcher, or lecturer?)
Eric: Wow, good question. As a writer, I've learned that there are times when one simply has to let go of an idea or a chapter or a page or a phrase because it just doesn't work. And no matter how much you fiddle with it, it's not going to work. Also—although I don't always succeed—I try to see my work from the reader's point of view as well as from my own point of view.

As a teacher, I've learned that covering less material and giving the students time to talk about it with each other and with me is better than covering more. I understand that this isn't always possible, but it's what I've tried to do in my teaching when I can.

As a researcher, I've learned that if something seems strange then it is probably a warning to you that you've screwed up! Either you did something wrong or you've made a poor assumption or you don't quite understand something as much as you think you do. The temptation is to keep pressing on and hope that it's nothing, but the wise thing to do is to stop and check it out! In research, one of the most important things to do is to Confirm Your Assumptions (CYA).

As a lecturer, I've learned that you should always run your timed PowerPoint presentation at least once after the computer is turned on and before you start talking. Even if you've run it on the same computer before, sometimes the memory allocation can be weird the first time through and the timing can be off. Also, it's much better to run a little short and leave extra time for questions than it is to run a little long and have people impatient to leave.

Goals and Aspirations

Q: What is your next goal? What must you still do to achieve this goal?
Eric: My next goal is to have A Briefer History of Time nominated for the 1999 Hugo Award for Best-Related Book. Hugo awards are kind of like Oscars for science fiction and fantasy. Science Made Stupid by Tom Weller won this award in 1986 (when it was called best non-fiction book), and that book was an inspiration to me while I was writing Briefer History. I don't know how realistic this goal is, but I've been a science fiction fan for most of my life and being an officially recognized part of that community of authors—even as a "Best Related Book nominee"—would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. However, since the nominations aren't made until early next year, I suppose I should have a nearer-term "next goal." For that, you can reread the last paragraph of my answer to the first question.

(Editorial Insertion: Following is the paragraph Eric mentioned.)
My current professional goal is for A Briefer History of Time to do well enough that I will be able to write more funny and educational books about science and history. And if Briefer History happens to become a bestseller, I certainly won't complain.

The History of Briefer History

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Eric: A brief history of Briefer History: I was inspired to write "The History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less" after I found the "History of the United States in 100 Words or Less" on the web one day. I submitted my universal history to rec.humor.funny, it was accepted, and it appeared a couple of months later.

Someone sent it to Marc Abrahams (the editor of AIR), to whom I had just submitted the first draft of "How to Write a Scientific Paper." Both pieces appeared in AIR and Marc invited me to read the history at the 7th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. W. H. Freeman had just published the Best of Annals of Improbable Research, so a couple of people from Freeman were at the Igs. They heard my talk, sent me e-mail to ask whether I'd be interested in turning it into a book, and the result was History.

I hope that people like A Briefer History of Time. If you've read it—whether you liked it or not—I would like to hear from you!

Editor's Comment
To commemorate the fifth anniversary of The Briefer History of Time, Dr. Schulman has updated his essay and released the revision under a Creative Commons license at The Briefer History of Time . Dr. Schulman encourages visitors to "Feel free to download it and share it with anyone you think might enjoy it."

Contacting Eric Schulman

Q: How can you be contacted? What sites do you recommend?
Eric: E-mail is the best way to contact me. The page I've looked at most often during the past month or so is:
My home page, Eric Schulman,

To contact Eric Schulman directly, e-mail him at: Eric.Schulman

To send a private message to Anne Wallingford, click here

Tuesday, March 16, 2004