Books, Science, Space

Interview with science writer Nicky Jenner

A few months ago I read Nicky Jenner’s excellent book 4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars. It’s a detailed look at all aspects of the red planet, including the science and history of the place, the missions we have sent to visit and stay, the planet’s influence on pop culture and our future plans to set up a colony there! Jenner writes about it all in a style that is accessible, interesting and funny, and as a budding science communicator myself, I just had to get in touch with her and see if she’d answer a few of my questions. I’m very happy (and grateful) that she did!

Nicky Jenner is a science writer and editor with a BSc in Astrophysics and an MSc in Science Communication. She has written lots of articles for news and science publications; 4th Rock is her first science book. She also does lots of work in conservation and environmental science, as if she wasn’t already busy enough! You can find out more about what she’s up to on her website, but for now, here is my interview with Nicky Jenner about two of my favourite subjects: Mars and science communication.

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I’m ready to receive some wisdom.

Mars

When it comes to space exploration, do you think getting people to Mars should be our number one priority?
I’m not sure about ‘number one’ priority, but I think it’s a valuable and worthwhile priority to have. Everything that goes into such a demanding, ground-breaking exploration program doesn’t ‘only’ tell us more about Mars, but also benefits scientific research, technological development, and our economy on a far wider scale. For example, cochlear implants arose as a result of research commissioned by the Apollo program — as did memory-foam mattresses, invisible braces, ear thermometers, solar cells, freeze-dried foods: the list goes on. I think it’s easy to think of a mission as being removed from all else, as ‘solely’ targeting one specific thing or objective or body in space at the expense of all other options, but that’s just not the case. I’m a huge lover of space and astronomy in general so I get quite excited about the prospect of exploring everything from the moons of Jupiter to the solar corona to space weather, but as it stands, Mars is a pragmatic and hugely exciting choice to focus on in terms of interplanetary exploration.

What current ‘unknown’ question about Mars would you most like answered?
There are a few! There actually remain quite a few open questions about Mars, which is part of what makes it such an exciting target. For example, how did its two small moons (Phobos and Deimos) form? What happened to ‘switch off’ the planet’s magnetic field? Mars’ northern hemisphere sits around 5km lower than the southern; how exactly did this ‘dichotomy’ form?
However, the number one question would likely be the same one most people would choose — is, or was there ever, life on Mars? There are a few schools of thought on this: a) life never arose there, b) it did but is now gone, or c) it did and is still there. An interesting place to look would be underground, where we know there’s a system of caves or cavities lying beneath Mars’ surface. Scientists increasingly think that Mars once had loads of water across and below its surface — lakes, pools, even a hemisphere-wide sea — and where there’s water, there’s life (on Earth, at least!). Water is the common denominator for all forms of life on Earth, so knowing that Mars was once watery and warmer is really exciting. If liquid pools still exist below Mars’ surface — which would also act as a shield from incoming radiation, something that would make it difficult or even impossible for life to survive on the surface — we may find life there.

Do you have a favourite piece of Mars pop culture?
One of the most interesting things I came across during my research was how cartoons were influenced by our perceptions of Mars at the time. For example, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, which I remember watching when I was younger. The Mysterons were from Mars, and were depicted as a kind of disembodied collective consciousness. They were conceived in the 1960s. Prior to this, scientists had spotted an apparent network of canal-like marks tracing the surface of Mars, causing intense speculation about whether the planet was inhabited. However, by the late 1960s and following the arrival of NASA’s Mariner 4 probe to the Red Planet, this was a largely discarded theory. One of the creators of Captain Scarlet (Gerry Anderson) was unsure what to believe and so chose to depict his Martian characters as invisible, so that “if [scientists] did come up with conclusive evidence that there was no life on Mars, I could say, ‘Ha-ha, yes there is — but you can’t see it.’” Another example is the wonderful little humanoid, helmeted, ant-like Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes. He embodies many of the mythological stereotypes about Mars: he’s hot-headed, aggressive, and hungry for conflict and destruction. As another little pub quiz snippet, he was also used as the official mascot for NASA’s Spirit rover, and has a rocky feature on Mars named after him!

If you joined a colonising mission to Mars, how do you think you’d do?
I’d love to go to Mars — but I’m not sure I could stay for especially long! I completely relate to the adventurous spirit and the attitude of ‘going for the sake of scientific endeavour’, but I’m also realistic about the challenges and difficulties, and the kind of strength of character and focus you need to succeed in (hu)manned space exploration. Everything from mental to social to physical health would degrade. Mars’ gravity would mean your muscles would grow weak, your eyesight and cognitive abilities may decline, you’d be cooped up in a small space with the same few people for months on end, and you’d be unable to exercise even small amounts of personal freedom — e.g. popping to the shops, going for a walk, having a bath, phoning your mum. As shown through previous ISS and Apollo missions, this can really take its toll on your mental health. Plus, I have two lovely spaniels and I wouldn’t be able to bring them with me… so that’s a dealbreaker!

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As good a reason as any to stay on Earth.

Science writing/communication

What is your background? How did you get into science communication?
I studied Astrophysics at university, but have always loved writing and I also considered studying some kind of English-related subject or journalism. I actually emailed some editors and science writers I respected to ask for their advice on how to get into science journalism — what would they recommend, and what worked for them? Their advice was to study what you love, what you’re interested in, and what you’d like to write about, and to work on your journalistic skills and experience alongside this rather than studying journalism more generally. I think this was great advice, and it’s worked really well for me. I started looking for science journalism placements in my second year and managed to get a summer internship and some writing experience that carried through my final year, and then went on to study for an MSc in Science Communication.

When writing about science, what are some techniques you use to make the work accessible to a wide audience?
In general, I try to write what I’d like to read. I think keeping language simple is a good way to go; often the concepts are tricky, and breaking it down as far as possible is the best way to go. My number one tip would be to ensure you understand what you’re writing about — ask a researcher, an expert, or a colleague who knows more than you, and ask them to explain it to you like you’re a 10-year-old. Why would someone find this exciting? Why is it interesting or important? Why should they care about this at all? It’s not always true that you’ll be able to break things down to such a level, but if you approach every single commission like you know nothing and are working from the ground up, you’ll ensure you don’t make silly assumptions or write at a level that’s difficult to engage with.

What media (e.g. books, films, podcasts) do you consume that make you a better science communicator?
Actually, I’d say that consuming a wide range of media that’s not purely science-focused is a really good idea. Watch, listen, and read everything from true crime podcasts to novels to opinion pieces to news to anime to TV dramas… you get the gist! At risk of sounding a bit lofty, communication is universal across all types of media — and the more you consume, the more you begin to understand how you like to be communicated to, and how you could go about replicating that in the way you write/broadcast/publish. I also think reading science fiction is a great idea for any budding scicommer, and it’s a good idea to consume popular science content regularly. I think one of the challenges in science communication is to actually get attention and interest, which, while being true for many forms of comms, is exacerbated in science due to perceptions of it being ‘hard’ or ‘boring’ or ‘beyond me’ or ‘something done by old white men in a lab’. You want to try to challenge these perceptions by reframing your work and connecting with people — and to achieve this goal you don’t want to only consume content from within scicomm, but from all angles and across all subjects.

Do you have any advice for other people who would like to get into science communication?
Be proactive. I got one of my first internships because I simply emailed the editor of a magazine I loved and asked if I could work for them in my summer break — and they said yes. I emailed people I admired and asked for their advice, and then followed the tips I felt suited my aspirations the best. I approached my book editor and asked for some basic pitching guidelines for that particular publishing label, and he invited me out for lunch — where the idea for 4th Rock from the Sun was born. For science communication specifically, I’d say it helps to have a specialism — and one you find truly interesting. I’ve found that having physics/astronomy as my preferred beat doesn’t hinder me from writing about other subjects, but greatly helps me when it comes to writing about that subject itself. Also, keep yourself up-to-date on new findings as much as possible! It’s incredible how things have moved on from when I was an undergraduate — or even how many new findings have come out about Mars since my book was published. This was even an issue during the writing process, which took 1.5–2 years; I’d draft a chapter and then need to go back in and update it as scientific opinion shifted.

Can you tell me more about your work in biodiversity and ecosystem health?
Another of my interests has always been conservation, so I decided to study more about it last year. I’m currently on the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife, and Ecosystem Health, and also work with a number of different conservation and environment-related organisations on an ad hoc basis as a writer/editor/whatever I can help with! I’m also the science writer and online editor for the UK Wild Otter Trust, which is a cause extremely close to my heart, and I write about environmental science and policy for the University of the West of England (they manage a news service for the EU Commission called Science for Environment Policy, and have a great Science Communication Unit). I think it’s difficult to work in any kind of sector connected to any kind of science and not be a little alarmed by issues connected to climate change and biodiversity loss.


Thank you so much, Nicky Jenner, for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope all my readers have found this as interesting as I did!

Check out Nicky Jenner’s website and Twitter, and buy her book here.

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