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Behind the Scenes -- December 1995

An Interview with Kathleen McAuliffe

Why were you drawn to Edison?

I've been a science writer for almost two decades now. I was naturally interested in Edison because he was one of the greatest inventors of all time. I come from a family that is divided in its talents--one branch is artistic and one side is scientists, inventors, engineers. I was very fascinated when I heard the Edison Papers Project was trying to understand the essence of technical creativity. I was interested in finding out more about the creative impetus in his case and what lessons everyone could derive from it and to what degree some of those qualities translate across media to other kinds of creative endeavors such as music and painting.

How did you get access to the people and the project?

I was on Rutgers campus doing another article. When I heard about the project I ended up spending about a week touring the beautiful facilities in West Orange. It was exquisite to see hand blown glass and a shop room floor with the old machinery that is stunning to view.

What surprised you about Edison?

I didn't realize how wildly enthusiastic Edison would be. I thought he was like the rest of the public did, a stodgy, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy, burning the midnight oil--that is until he invented the light bulb. When you read his notebooks he's so excited by life. He has an incredible curiosity. At the least unexpected event, no matter how minor, he duly notes it down and gets so excited over stuff that turns out to be trivia. He had very few Eureka moments, but if you read his notebooks you get the impression that there are light bulbs going off in his head every ten seconds. He gets so excited by minutiae. If there's anything exciting or curious that happens while he doing something, he immediately stops and follows up on it. He also clearly had a fun-loving streak and he clearly loved what he was doing and was going at it full bore. He was having a marvelous time.

What do you like about science writing?

I think science is the most creative enterprise on earth. I get a tremendous buzz out of the visual arts, but I don't find writing about them very exciting. Science is lends itself much more to writing, because it is so concept based. The other thing I love is trying to translate concepts that get buried in technical jargon or in complex data that's difficult to interpret, I like to pull out for people the underlying concepts to make them crystal clear so they can get the same buzz that I do. Because I have a background in science I can sift through this all and get to the essence where for the average layman it's a lot harder to do.

Why did you choose science writing over science?

I went through a soul-searching period where I decided I preferred science writing to doing basic research because I enjoyed being more of generalist. The joke in science is: you learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing at all. You really are very pigeon-holed in science, you really do lose sight of the big picture. I had just come out of university and I had a very broad and excellent background in science and I wanted to build on that and I knew that if I became a scientist I was going to let most of it go by the wayside except for the one specific area that I focus on.

Interview by Marty Hergert

Copyright © (1995) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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