Carrying right along with our EDGE-Lite series of interviews, we have on deck Claire McCague. I had the pleasure of meeting Claire at SFContario, shortly after the release of her new book: The Rosetta Man.
Unfortunately, the breaks in our schedules wouldn’t overlap as I’d hoped. So, instead of posting a live (and constantly interrupted) interview, we had to go the old-fashioned route: email. One thing I did pick up from our live conversation though: I’m pretty sure her day job is more cutting-edge than yours.
9DW: Okay, right off the bat: please tell me again what you meant by “taking very small things and poking them into even smaller things.” Because anything that has the word “nano” in the job description sounds like the perfect daytime employment for a science fiction writer.
Claire McCague: I have a PhD in poking very small things. As a graduate student, I used a custom-built nanoindenter to test the mechanical properties of thin films and small structures. My studies included testing the polyphosphate glass that protects vehicle engines from wear. (Take heat + friction + an additive in engine oil and you’ll form this protective glassy film exactly where steel is grinding against steel.) I also poked at kevlar fibres that have a crystalline core wrapped in an amorphous skin. The job required that I sharpen tungsten wire to 50 nanometer diameter points and build capacitance-based force sensors by fusing silicon to glass. (You can rip ions out of glass if you heat it to 450 Celsius and apply 1400 volts… too much information? You did ask about my science life.)
After completing my PhD, I spent many years fabricating nanostructured devices in cleanroom environments wearing very sexy bouffant caps, hoods, face masks, coveralls, aprons, shoe covers, and boot covers.
CM: I like that you’ve labeled me a bona fide genuine authentic scientist (as opposed to a mad or mail-order scientist). It’s true that I’m also a multi-woodwind player. I’ve performed every month of the year for decades now. I currently play with the Sybaritic String Band, and we run a dance series with the Vancouver Rogue Folk Club. I play recorder and saxophone at crazy-fiddle-player speeds.
9DW: And because being a PhD / writer / musician isn’t enough, you’re also a playwright. Tell me what you’ve had performed and where.
CM: I’ve written plays that have toured Fringe Festivals in Canada. Tremor (this tremor love is) was my most naked play. Jericho in the Morning Light had the largest cast (10 actors, 18 roles). The Manhattan Theatre Source was the smallest stage, while the Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago is the only time I’ve seen one of my scripts performed on the deck of a purple pirate ship (in a one-act festival alternating nights with The Pirates of Penzance). I also have a one day bring-your-own-costume production every spring in the woods of the Fraser Common Farm.
9DW: You work with materials and machinery that only existed in science fiction stories a generation ago. Aside from interstellar travel, what science fictional technology do you think will become science fact in the next twenty years?
CM: First laser: 55 years ago. First electronic computer: 69 years ago. First solar cell: 74 years ago. Nuclear chain reaction: 82 years. Electrons: 118 years. X-rays: 120 years.
While I could write about novel materials (graphene aerogel is cool), trips to Mars, the fusion reactor my neighbor is building or tech that is already edging onto the market (electric vehicles, fuel cells, etc.), I’ll instead remember a presentation by a research group that was building the most precise and powerful magnets. These MRI magnets were meant for measuring the distribution of specific molecules in the brain, ie. observing small concentrations of neurotransmitters as opposed to seeing structures based on their water content. I want that work to succeed and to provide a strong tool for revolutionary advances in our understanding and treatment of mental illnesses.
9DW: Does humour just happen in stories, or do you deliberately keep the narrative light? Either way, how do you write “funny”?
CM: With two ‘N’s. (9DW note: <sigh> I deserved that one.)
I’ll admit that I circulated the question and that’s the best answer I received. The humour in The Rosetta Man is in the spontaneous response characters have to the extreme situation they face.
9DW: What feedback have you received about The Rosetta Man from your fellow scientist?
CM: The feedback has been great. So far, non-scientist feedback has dominated over scientist feedback. (My laboratory peer-group spends too many hours in the lab.)
9DW: How can we encourage more people to read books?
CM: Bribery. Consider a chocolate dispensing e-reader…actually, that wouldn’t work. Hungry people would turn the pages too fast and those attempting to diet would avoid books.
9DW: What are the biggest benefits of attending science fiction or reader conventions?
CM: The gatherings I’ve been to have had a good mix of writing/media/science panels, cool stuff to buy and parties. At SFContario, I also got to witness the electrocution of an innocent pickle. This required far fewer volts than fusing glass to silicon.
Want to follow Claire? You have one or two options.
Her website: http://clairemccague.com/
Her band: http://www.clairemccague.com/sybaritic/
Her films: https://www.youtube.com/user/clairemccague
Her personal Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/claire.mccague.9
Her author page on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/clairemccague.author
Or follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/clairemccague
But don’t forget to buy Rosetta Man: http://edgewebsite.com/books/therosettaman/therosettaman-catalog.html