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Tom Jackson - Four Way Interview

Tom Jackson is a science writer based in Bristol, UK. Tom specialises in recasting science and technology into lively historical narratives. After almost 20 years of writing, Tom has uncovered a wealth of stories that help to bring technical content alive and create new ways of enjoying learning about science. In his time, Tom has been a zoo keeper, travel writer, buffalo catcher and filing clerk, but he now writes for adults and children, for books, magazines and TV. His latest title is Chilled: how refrigeration changed the world and might do it again.

Why science?

The obvious answer is that it is the best way of finding out about how stuff works. Some of my most wondrous and satisfying moments have come when I've learned something that gave me a bit more of the 'big picture'. Things that spring to mind are the Bohr atomic model, the rock cycle, natural and sexual selection, nucleosynthesis. I’m probably too impatient to be a real scientist though—at least I was when that was an option for me. I like the stories as much as the results, following the way knowledge changes, and continues to change, and seeing the many links between it all.

Why this book?

While I was writing Chilled I would often find myself saying something like, 'I’m working on a book about fridges, but it’s not really about fridges.' Cue quizzical looks. What interested me is what the kitchen refrigerator represents. It is the fruit of a long line of discoveries that involve many of the great names of physics and chemistry plus many awesome stories of unusual goings on. The fridge has obviously altered the way we produce, purchase, and consume food, and it was fun to illustrate just how it is utterly integrated into our day to day—just imagine life without one. But I wanted to extend that further by showing that the kind of thing that a fridge does also pops up in many applications far removed from food—eg you need refrigeration to make steel cheaply and make a strong concrete dam, and the Higgs boson was found using the world’s largest refrigerator. Absolute zero had to make an appearance, of course, but what interested me most about that was the strange behaviour of materials at temperatures close to 0 K, and how that might lead to technologies of the future. So, now you can see; it’s not really about fridges!

What’s next?

Well, I work on all kinds of non-fiction projects, some for kids, some for YA or family readerships, as well as adult non-fiction titles like Chilled. My top pick for a future project would be the story of standard candles. Again, it’s not really about candles, but the objects that tell us how big the Universe is.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The Pluto flyby just happened, so I’m excited to see the up close images that will be with us come the autumn, I think. The snapshot from the approach has certainly put the dwarf planet debate back on the table. I just think the generation brought up with Pluto as a full planet don’t like the thought of its demotion. Perhaps a better solution is the one from Alan Stern, the New Horizon chief: Pluto and Eris et al are all planets, but the eight big ones are überplanets. Does that sound better? On another vein, my friend Hamish Johnston from Physics World has been telling me about quark novae of late. I’m interested to see where that might lead.

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