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Science writing and self-analysis: All in a day's work for author Hannah Holmes

News, Lifestyle

Science writing and self-analysis: All in a day's work for author Hannah Holmes

SOUTH PORTLAND — It's a snowy Friday, and there are no footsteps leading up the sidewalk to author Hannah Holmes' house near Willard Square. She's holed up in the living room, sharing the snow day with a Diet Coke, her computer and two dogs.

She likes it this way.

"I'm cripplingly shy," Homes, 47, said. "I sit in my office and read academic journals and once in a while I come out and interview people after I know all the answers to my questions."

It's a surprising admission from someone who has visited laboratories around the world, interviewing brilliant scientists about what they know best, and turning their research into witty, accessible prose.

It's even more surprising that she put her own anxious personality front and center in her fourth book, "Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality" (2011, Random House, New York; $26).

The book looks at how and why personality traits have evolved over time, and what breeding mice to embody a particular aspect of human personality can teach us about ourselves. Each chapter examines one facet of personality.

In the first chapter, Neuroticism, we learn about Holmes' spider phobia, anxiety attacks that left her breathless, and a fear of being hit by passing cars so severe, she would throw herself into road-side ditches.

“I’m just kind of in denial about how much of my personality I revealed in that book," she admitted. "I kind of needed to do it to make the book work. But I don’t need to read it again.”

While Holmes is a science writer who drops the names of hormones and parts of the brain in every other paragraph, she still relies on the same literary techniques that all good authors use, including creating character-driven narratives.

"Just as a good story of any sort relies on a good plot, it's also really helpful to have characters," she said. "Because I am the most convenient character to carry the story, I used myself."

She also makes characters out of many of the scientists she interviewed. There is Marc Caron, a shy cell biologist who uses mice to study hyperactivity, who was convinced Holmes was an animal-rights activist trying to ruin his reputation and his research. Later on, we meet Marilyn Carroll, who studies the effect of addictive drugs on personality. She is surrounded by marijuana and cocaine all day, but never smokes or snorts any of it.

"Anything you can add that humanizes the information is helpful," Holmes explained when asked if she wrote about scientists as much as, or more than, the science. "If somebody is a really fabulous scientist, but a crummy communicator or not that interesting to talk about, I sideline them."

Part of Holmes' ability to enhance science writing with interesting characters  comes from her education and previous work experience. She is not a scientist. Instead, she majored in English at the University of Southern Maine, and worked as a reporter for the now-defunct Casco Bay Weekly. Holmes had to take a science class to graduate, and picked geology because it was the only one that fit into her schedule.

Surprising herself, she fell in love with it, partially because of the parallels she saw between writing and science.

"Science is inherently a story. It always starts with a question and it goes through this process of discovering clues. It tends to unfold like a mystery novel," she said.

After graduating from college, Holmes moved to New York to write for the environmental Garbage magazine. She then began a period of what she called "eco travel writing" during which she traveled and reported on environmental and social issues around the globe, from dinosaur hunting in Mongolia to adventure racing in New Zealand.

"And kind of without realizing it, I became a science writer because environmental issues are fundamentally science issues," she said.

But her environmentalism still seeps into her work, even though these days she's writing more about brain chemistry than water chemistry.

"Ultimately I do want to brainwash the world into a better understanding of how the planet works and what our impact is. But nobody wants to read scolding and lectures. People like to read stories and laugh," she said.

Holmes said even the brainy "Quirk" is "advocacy in sheep's clothing." By showing that other animals have personalities, Holmes hopes to inspire her readers to have more empathy for other species.

"The message (is) that we are not an exceptional animal," she said. "All animals have emotions and personalities, and you can read that as a demotion for humans or as a promotion for all the creatures we push around on a daily basis."

Holmes says all personalities, whether in humans or animals, are here for a reason. "Every animal species needs personality because we all confront an unpredictable environment and no single personality type is adequate to exploit every opportunity and escape every catastrophe," she explained.

The realization that all personalities, even annoying or cruel ones, are useful in some way was comforting to Holmes.

"Nature has given its seal of approval to every personality type you see around you or it would not exist," she said. "And to me that was a tremendous relief, to realize that people who seem really selfish and mean ... have been essential, and have a huge role to play, still."

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net