The New Big Bang Theory

Interview by Brendan Bane

July 8, 2013—I met last week with Rob Irion, director of the UC–Santa Cruz Science Communication Program, to discuss his recent National Geographic article describing the youth of our solar system. (Full disclosure: Irion was my instructor at UCSC last spring.) These are just a few of the interesting things he shared about his article, writing process and career.

To read the full transcript of our interview, click here.

Rob Irion discusses his National Geographic article at Bookshop Santa Cruz on July 10. Find the article on stands or online here.

BRENDAN BANE: How did your interest in astronomy begin?

ROB IRION: It began when I was a little boy in Vermont, where the skies are beautiful, dark and clear, the aurora borealis are visible, and the constellations are crisp and stunning. I would look up at the night sky and think about how cool it would be to learn more, beyond what I was learning in basic science classes. I always did as much reading as I could about space. I was a voracious science fiction reader, especially Arthur C. Clark and Ray Bradbury. They really fired my imagination.

I also had a great aunt who was really instrumental in getting me involved with science from a young age. She would send me articles from the New York Times science section. She challenged me to read above my level, sent me my first calculator, and enrolled me in a science kit of the month club with cool experiments that were much better than ant farms. I loved all of that.

I’m curious about the inspiration that set you onto this article. How did it start?

It spans more than a decade. When I started freelance writing in 1997, I was writing about astrophysics and cosmology and not planetary science. The main magazine I was writing for, Science magazine, already had a planetary science correspondent, so I wrote about everything outside of the solar system. It wasn’t until I began writing for other magazines, like Discover, that I first came across some planetary science research that really interested me. I wrote a couple major articles for Discover. One was about astrobiology and the possibility of life on Europa, another about comet research and missions to comets. From that point forward I began to think more about writing planetary stories because they seemed to resonate a lot more with readers. I was getting more reaction from friends and family and colleagues, and I think that’s because we all have this idea of the solar system.

We grew up reading about the planets, seeing images from the Voyager spacecraft that had been returned to earth by NASA. We see them as places rather than abstractions. Distant galaxies, black holes, cosmology, and the fate of the universe—that’s all mind-blowing, but it’s really hard to picture. We have a very clear picture of the solar system embedded in our brains by virtue of the way we’re brought up in our educational system. So when I started writing about those things, I had an opportunity to write articles that could be more deeply felt by readers.

After I wrote a few pieces for Discover, I began writing for Smithsonian magazine. For that magazine, I went even further in that direction of writing about familiar objects and the new science behind all of these familiar objects, like the sun or comets. I did a more substantive piece for Smithsonian about the origins of comets and how we had sent a mission out into space to bring back particles of a comet for the first time and how compelling that was. The near-earth objects are these asteroids that could conceivably plow into Earth, causing major destruction and death like the one in Russia in February. I began to go to all of these places where this research was being done and became much more attuned to keeping tabs on the scope of research within the solar system and things that people were studying that were really at the forefront.

That’s how I got to the point of realizing that this new conception of the solar system’s history and its dynamic violence hadn’t really been told in the pages of National Geographic. They were overdue for covering this new awareness of how our planetary system came to be and how all of that chaos had affected Earth.

I knew they were already thinking about a story on the moon, about it being a Rosetta stone for understanding what had happened on the early earth. I said, “The story is way more interesting than that!” Because I had done all this reporting on comets and asteroids, I was in a position to tell them, “If you make this a more sweeping story about the motions of planets and how those planets, by moving through the solar system, cast things wildly in all directions, like a whirlwind moving through a pile of leaves, the story will become much more dynamic.” So we converged on this story.

Tell me about the scientists you worked with and where you traveled.

I’m not at all shy about saying I couldn’t have written this story 10 years ago or even five years ago. I simply hadn’t seen enough. I hadn’t talked to enough people. I hadn’t been to these really interesting places and observatories. I hadn’t seen the artifacts, meteorites and comet pieces.

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