2016: Looking back… and peeking ahead

It’s that time of year again when I’m at my most reflective, so I hope you’ll forgive what follows – it’s a bit of a personal (read: self-indulgent) post.

I get a lot of pleasure from looking back – as a long-time diary-keeper, it’s an almost meditative process. But it’s only half of the story for me, and I think that’s because of my ‘charming’ habit of always asking ‘What’s next?’… it’s as if every nostalgic bubble only exists within a foamy mass of future plans. The difference I’ve noticed this year is just how much my perception of that future-gazing has changed. It used to be tinged with panic, with a worry that I didn’t have a sufficiently detailed plan laid out, or enough control over what was to come. But now I’m beginning to see the possibilities it can offer. Maybe this shift in attitude has been gradual, but it definitely came to the fore in 2016…. what a crazy year!

As you might remember, draft #1 of Science and the City (SATC) was submitted just before Christmas 2015, and I received Editor Anna’s comments in January. Aided by my stop-trying-to-control-everything attitude, I started working on producing draft #2. I took the “kill your darlings” approach to the editing process. I was ruthless, and by mid-February, I’d cut 10,000 words! I knew the edits made the book better – it was far from perfect, but it was certainly less shit than it had been. The next stage was the copyedit, and in the very capable hands of Copyeditor Catherine, it really started to come together. She was utterly brilliant, and I remain in her debt! The copyedited version turned into the first proof in April (more on that later), and after that, it was mostly hands off for me for a while. BUT, during that time, I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs. I had rent to pay, so I was working on a diverse range of freelance projects, including writing the script for a talking sea turtle, and organising an event for astronauts and cosmonauts. It was madness, and at times, incredibly stressful, but I learned a huge amount about multitasking – something I’d already thought I was good at. Anyway, I received the first real-life copies of SATC in early August, a week before it hit bookshelves across Europe. And the following few months flew by in a blur!

As I mentioned in this post in October, I was amazed by the early reception for the book. My tone is a bit Marmite-y, so I was expecting loads of people to just totally hate it. And it turns out some people really do, which is fine, of course! Thankfully, those people seem, so far, to be outnumbered by those who’ve enjoyed it. That may change as post-Christmas-reviews start to roll in…. we’ll see! SATC’s publication allowed me to do some seriously cool things this year – I was been lucky enough to appear on the Today Programme (R4), BBC Word Service, WIRED, the Guardian, Absolute Radio, and TodayFM, amongst others. Some of you might even have spotted me on Sunday Brunch on Channel 4 on November 6th – I’m glad I did it, but to be honest, I found live TV to be utterly terrifying.

Myself, my book and the Sunday Brunch presenters talking poo, skyscrapers and urban planning
Myself, my book and the Sunday Brunch presenters talking poo, skyscrapers and urban planning

SATC was also published in the US and across Asia/ Australasia in October of this year – I even spotted it in a bookshop in the centre of Wellington! As part of the release, the book has been reviewed in the Irish Independent, BBC Focus, Science, and Discover Magazine, Starburst, and Chemistry World, to name a few, and there are more to come. I’ve yet to be left genuinely upset by a review, so I am counting that as a win. Other personal highlights from 2016 include becoming friends with one of my very favourite writers (Mary Roach), making a series of videos with Crossrail (here), and another one with Hyundai, visiting a sewage treatment plant, going to Budapest, spending lots of time with family, saying ‘poo’ on live TV, road-tripping in the southwest of the US… and packing up my life and moving to New Zealand!

The move had been on the cards for a while, but 2016 was when we finally pulled the trigger. We arrived in early December, so we’re still in holiday mode a bit! But we’ve found a lovely house to move into, and Richard will start a new job in January, so we’re getting there. I have a small amount of freelance lined up for Jan and Feb, but fingers crossed to find something more permanent / reliable before too long. Regardless, I’m hoping to keep writing for Forbes, Materials Today, and How It Works for the foreseeable future, and I also have ideas to pitch to a few other outlets too. In the meantime, I’ll be slowly adjusting to life in the Southern Hemisphere. I haven’t yet had any major pangs of homesickness, which I’m really grateful for. Video calls help hugely with the distance, though we’re all still getting used to the time difference.

So far, so shiny. But 2016 hit quite a few ‘lows’ too. My musical hero Prince passed away on the day I submitted my final copyedited draft of the book (April 21st). The proof was a hardcopy, with only minimal edits, so when I’d signed them all off, I packaged the pages up, and walked (skipped!) over to the post office to send it back to Bloomsbury. I was SO EXCITED. The writing was done, so I decided I deserved a celebratory cake. By the time I’d walked home (maybe 10 mins later), rumours of his death had begun to appear on Twitter and various forums. I called my brother – a huge Prince fan, and the person who introduced me to his music – and we cried together on the phone. I still have moments where I forget, briefly, that he’s gone. I suspect that the sadness I feel will stay with me for years to come. It might seem silly to be so emotionally connected to a ‘celeb’, but Prince was a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime weirdo, which is the highest compliment I can bestow. He elevated music to an ethereal plane, up there with the likes of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and through his performance, he redefined masculinity. He lived an unapologetic life, and his fans, like me, loved him for it. I am eternally grateful that I got to see him perform live on six occasions, each time producing the best gig I’d ever been to. 2016 also saw the passing of many other people I admire: Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, David Bowie, astronauts Piers Sellers and John Glenn, and on the day I write this, astrophysicist Vera Rubin. My family had several health woes too, but thankfully we are all still here to welcome in 2017. Long may that continue 🙂

EDIT: After publishing this post, news broke that the cardiac arrest that Carrie Fisher suffered a few days ago proved to be fatal. She was a hero to me, but I’m struggling to find the words to express it. So I’ll just paste what I wrote on Instagram an hour ago: Carrie Fisher was the only princess I ever wanted to be – fearless, determined and unflappable. Away from Star Wars she was a brilliant writer, producer and script doctor, who never seemed to let the madness of Hollywood define her. She spoke openly about her battles with depression, called out sexism in all its forms, and was a fierce defender of free speech. The rebellion has lost its General, but she will never be forgotten.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that more globally, news was stark this year. Between Trump and Brexit, my liberal-leaning heart took a hammering in 2016. Since that fateful day in June, I’ve frequently found myself wondering how society has gotten to a stage that propaganda gets more airtime (and support) than reliable evidence; pondering how it is that some of the most privileged of public figures on both sides of the Atlantic have managed to re-brand themselves as the saviours of the working-class; lamenting the current reality that highly-educated experts are distrusted, while fluff and bluster, loudly shouted by people with conflicting interests are applauded; and feeling fearful about what this shift will mean for the future of our planet. I think I’m over the “despair” stage now, but I’ve skipped straight through “acceptance” – I’m absolutely determined to call out any injustice I see in this new era of closed-minded intolerance. Our predecessors sacrificed too much, too often, for us to just shrug our shoulders now. I’m also hoping to get even more involved in Let Toys Be Toys – albeit from the other side of the planet – and to get back into the habit of talking science with schoolkids.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve made an exception for 2017. I’ve promised myself that I’ll carry a new mantra into next year: BE RELENTLESS. Whether that’s in love or friendship, work or travel, campaigning or opportunity-seeking, or even just getting out of my comfort zone….if it’s something I care deeply about, I plan to throw my whole heart-and-soul into all of it. No excuses.

I’m starting by writing that long-promised proposal for Book #2. So far, I’ve got an awesome title and a rough idea of the type of stuff I want to talk about. By mid-February, I’ll have shaped it into a more coherent package. I’m also talking to another publisher about a (kind of) infographics-led follow-up to / expansion of SATC, and there are another few things on the boil… watch this space!

Here’s to a busy 2017. Wishing you all the very best in your pursuits too – and if I can help, let me know 🙂

L x