Here’s a guest post by that student, Daniel Chamovitz, author of What A Plant Knows
I don’t consider myself an author; I am a scientist. I spend my days and nights considering levels of gene expression, pondering the intricacies of protein structure, and guiding my students on their nascent scientific paths. A fair amount of academic administrative duties and a heavy, but immensely satisfying, load of lecturing fill out my schedule. And when all this is finished, I still have endless grant proposals, reports, reviews and articles to write.
But I wasn’t invited to last month’s Brattleboro Literary Festival because of my academic record; I was invited as the author my recent book, What A Plant Knows.
What brings a scientist to lay down the pipette and pickup the pen?
My impetus in writing a trade book was twofold: First, I wanted to educate. I get endlessly annoyed at public ignorance of science in general and of plant biology in particular. While many people I speak to are surprised to discover that plants contain the gene for breast cancer, they have no problem in quoting the scientifically lame book, The Secret Life of Plants, and believing that plants don’t like to be yelled at. But I came to realize that my colleagues and I are partially responsible for this ignorance, as we have done a pitiful job extolling the wonders of plant biology.
Scientists from other fields have greatly influenced public perception through their books: Hawking has done a great service to astrophysics with A Brief History of Time; Dawkins explains evolution in The Selfish Gene, and mathematics is brought to life in Simon Singh’s Feremat’s Last Theorem. Perhaps arrogantly, I set out to write the plant version of these wonderful books, a book that would open the amazing world of plant science to the general public.
Second, for years I’ve had a secret desire to write something that was popular, and not strictly and professionally scientific. While much of my success as a scientist has been due to my writing ability, that writing – of grant proposals and research articles – is very structured and repetitive, and admittedly reaches a very limited audience. Could I go beyond the secure world of professional scientific writing? Could I take this skill one step forward and write something that would be both interesting and intelligible to a non-scientist?
I quickly learned that the literary world is not so different from my world of academic science. Success in science is not only a function of intelligence, but also of diligence, deferred gratification, risk taking, and an ability to know when to learn from – and when to ignore – rejection.
Success in science is also influenced by serendipity – just as in publishing.
Once I made the commitment to writing a trade book, I knew that I had to find an agent to reach a broad audience. Having no idea how to find an agent, I looked in the “Acknowledgments” of the last two books I read, to identify the agents who had sold them. The rest is an author fairy-tale: One query letter and 22 months later: a published book!
Now four months post-publication, a rush of publicity events, and wonderfully kind words from new friends and readers, and I’m back in my lab. I have a 10,000-word grant proposal due next week, two new scientific manuscripts to write, and a new course to teach. But in the back of my mind I’m working out the general shape of a new book proposal based on an idea inspired by my visit to Vermont. Maybe publishing and science are similar in another way as well – both are addictive.
Daniel Chamovitz, Ph.D., is the Director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University. He studied at both Columbia University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he received his Ph.D. in Genetics. He has lectured at major universities around the world. www.danielchamovitz.com