Writer and chess coach: careeer case study

Writer and chess coach

What got you interested in physics?
I always liked sciences at Stirling High School and physics was my favourite, because of the combination of mathematics and practical stuff.

What did you study at school and university?
I took physics at the University of Manchester. I was attracted to Manchester because of their good reputation for astrophysics (Jodrell Bank Observatory) and particle physics. Their admissions officer also gave a great talk and I was impressed with the overall setup.

Following graduation, I wanted to do a PhD with practical applications in the intersection between biology and physics. When I looked at what was available, Oxford replied, with a project involving immunology and physics. However, after a year, the research group moved to set up a biotech company and I had to learn to work more on my own, with a new project. This was on multiple sclerosis, in collaboration with researchers from Denmark. My main role was looking at interactions between components of the immune system from a structural point of view, using x-ray crystallography, though I had to do some biochemistry lab work as well. In the end, I managed to complete my PhD in a combination of biochemistry and physics.

What was your career progression?
In my final year at Manchester, I co-authored a computer program called the Babar Particle Physics Teaching Package which has since been used in a number of particle physics masterclasses aimed at 6th formers. I wrote the teaching material and my lab partner wrote the 3D graphics engine for displaying the particle tracks. (He's now the lead physics programmer for a computer games company!)

In the final year of my PhD, a friend who was already an author with O’Reilly Media was invited to do an audition for a programming book in O'Reilly's “Head First” series. I was asked if I could come on board as a co-author to help my busy friend, as he had seen my work on the Babar Particle Physics Teaching Package. The programming book didn't get off the ground, but after doing a couple of auditions I was asked to write “Head First Physics” instead.

What job do you do now?
I am currently promoting “Head First Physics”. It covers mechanics, with a strong emphasis on learning to “think like a physicist” rather than memorising. I hope that there will be the possibility to write “part two” soon, as an algebra-based physics course would also cover other topics such as waves and electromagnetism.

I am also a chess coach and run a number of school chess clubs, having played chess for Scotland. Around that, I have recently started doing some part-time editing work for a local company.

What does the work involve day to day?
Right at the start of writing Head First Physics came the perk of being flown to Boston for training in the Head First approach to books – in particular, thinking of the reader as a learner and an active participant in the book.

When planning the book, I had to put myself in the learners’ shoes and work out what might go wrong in answering a physics question. This involved a lot of research including looking at examiners’ reports to find out where most of the mistakes in physics are made. I also had to think about how to provide an environment where the learner can make mistakes in a safe place – so that the learner discovers the right path for themselves after trying out something that doesn't quite work. This makes the right path more memorable than just being told about it. Another technique was to provide just enough information, 'just in time', rather than creating information overload by presenting everything, 'just in case' you need it. I also used different methods of putting the information across to appeal to different learning styles.

When actually writing, one method I used was story boarding, from the world of movies. This helped to provide focus, keep things on track and to be visual. Both the story boarding and actual writing involved several rounds of editorial feedback and refinement, including the technical review stage and a design edit. I spoke weekly with my editor, except during the final stages when the calls and emails were more frequent (and frantic)!

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