Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Learn Science & Have Fun - Read a Novel on Science

(JL Greger, author of Coming Flu and the soon-to-be-released Murder: A New Way To Lose Weight, both published by Oak Tree Press, is my guest today. She has been a scientist, professor, textbook writer (Nutrition for Living), and university administrator. Now she writes medical mystery/suspense novels.)

The U.S.’s rank in the Global Innovative Index dropped from seventh to tenth this year. Although the validity of the survey could be questioned (Education Week, J. Tomassini blog, July 9, 2012), most experts on education would agree that the average American is not as scientifically literate as (s)he should be. Accordingly, government agencies and scientific organizations have invested heavily in science education programs for children and teens, for example, AAAS Project 2061: Benchmarks for Science Literacy ( These programs focus on making science fun for children.

What about adults? Who makes science fun for adults?
Fun depends on the eyes of the beholders. Many adults enjoy the thousands of non-fiction books on science topics (medicine, the environment, astronomy, etc) published for the general public every year. A few of these “science books” read like action novels, particularly Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer. If you like horror, it’s hard to beat Preston’s description of the symptoms of smallpox with the skin peeling from the live bodies. And John Barry really “develops the character” of several of the dedicated (but quirky) scientists, leading medicine at the time of The Great Influenza (the early 1900’s).

What if you prefer fiction?
A number of authors, many of them scientists or physicians themselves, are using scientific tidbits to add color to their novels without overwhelming the plot. For example, a scientist asked me why I didn’t mention cytokine storms in my novel Coming Flu. I replied that I’ve seen a glazed look in the eyes of too many college biology students when cytokine storms (over reactions of the body’s immune system to the flu virus that cause many symptoms) were explained. Despite the “short cut,” you’ll learn a bit about vaccine development and immunology from Coming Flu. More importantly you’ll think about the wonders and limits of modern biology.

My next novel Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight (due out in March) is from the point of view of a physician investigating charges of scientific misconduct against a “diet” doctor. I was a professor in nutrition and toxicology.

Robin Cook, a physician, wrote more than twenty-five medical thrillers, the most famous being Coma.

Did you know Michael Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School before he became an author and film director? Although his novels (e.g. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) are science fiction, I find he cleverly includes bits of real science in them.

Kathy Reichs, an anthropology professor, writes of modern forensic anthropological techniques in her Tempe Brennan series of crime novels. Her books became the basis of the TV series Bones.

Camille Minichino, a physicist, writes mysteries with titles based on the periodic table (e.g.. The Hydrogen Murder, The Lithium Murder).

So why not borrow one of these books from the library or better still buy one. I think you may decide that science is fun.

In Coming Flu, a new, mysterious flu strain kills more than two hundred in less than a week in the small walled community near the Rio Grande. The rest face a bleak future under quarantine. One of the residents Sara Almquist, as a medical epidemiologist, pries into every aspect of her neighbors’ lives looking for ways to stop the spread of the flu. She finds promising clues – maybe one too many? Not all her neighbors are what they appear to be.

Be the first in your neighborhood to read MURDER: A NEW WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT (Oak Tree Press is publishing it in March 2013). Someone in this southwestern medical school doesn’t like women. Two have been murdered already. At first, Linda Almquist suspects the deaths are related to her investigation of Dr. Richard Varegos, a “diet doctor,” who is recklessly endangering the lives of his obese research subjects. Maybe she’s wrong. The murders might be related to something in the past – something involving her boss the Dean. While Linda fears for her job, the police fear for her life.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Character You Might Love To Hate

September 14, 1829

Hatred was never a motivating passion for Joe Johnson. He could dislike another person but he was sincere when he claimed he never hated another man. Even the negroes and speculators he mainly preyed upon would concede (had any survived their encounters with him) his treatment of them was not motivated by hate. Like love, it was an emotion that simply did not exist or was, sadly, missing from his character.

Greed, however, was another matter. Johnson was a man who could not keep his fingers off the property of others. This failing had developed along with a bullying nature during his boyhood in Sussex County, Delaware. Being larger and stronger than his companions, it had developed unimpeded until it was an ingrained part of his nature by young manhood. From there it had expressed itself in a variety of unrepentant forms. Stealing neighbor’s chickens to feed a greedy stomach had led, progressively, to the theft of hogs, horses and cattle for profit and, from there, to exploiting human flesh, robbery and murder.

But it was neither of these emotions that brought him to Schlusseltown.

That had been the eventual result of unplanned, expeditious flight necessary to save his miserable life.

That was the nature of life, he had decided long before. Just as one began to feel content, satiated with a full belly, plenty of grog and coins to clink together, fate would snatch the rug from beneath one’s feet and it would become necessary to begin all over again.

Still, once he was a safe distance from the gallows, he began to rejoice in his freedom and set to work sniffing out new opportunities.

Once he was sufficiently distanced from the immediate danger, there was no great need to hurry. With the money he had managed to snatch before absconding he could afford to travel at his leisure, sucking the marrow from the bone of each day. As he crossed Maryland there remained the possibility of pursuit but he was not the type to look back over his shoulder and the prospect only added to the exhilaration he felt.

Subjectively, his peregrinations were based on a desire to escape; objectively, he had no specific goal toward that purpose. He thought he might distance himself from danger by going to Canada or, perhaps, the West.

From Baltimore, he headed up the Susquehanna into Pennsylvania. He knew his money would not last indefinitely and so his sharp ears were ever tuned to the conversations of others, his eyes ever watchful and his other senses attuned, alert to the chance which would allow him to increase his resources.

Johnson was skilled at ingratiating himself with others. Perhaps it was his long history of cozening others or his exuberance and disregard for convention as something they subconsciously desired for themselves; he drew them like a mirror but the reflection they saw was him magnified.

Still, it was a false image they saw. No one beheld the real Joe Johnson; only the image he projected. He was no Alonzo Jump (there was a bit of irony in the choice of the unusual name since the real owner was the sheriff who had put an end to Johnson’s nefarious Delaware enterprise), a Virginian ostensibly on a horse-buying expedition but who appeared more interested in drinking, carousing and gambling.

It was in a tavern near Harrisburg that the impostor Alonzo Jump first heard of Captain Isaac Schlussel. The latter was fast becoming a legend. It was alleged he had single-handedly carved out an empire in the coal country wilderness to the north where he manufactured gunpowder, operated sawmills, farms and various other enterprises. Aside from the visions of this man’s wealth and plots for grabbing a share of it, the thing that impressed itself most upon Johnson’s fertile mind were accounts of the man’s passion for horses which equaled the lust of ordinary men for nubile young girls.

As luck would have it, a farmer who bred racing horses was stopping at the tavern. After examining them and being assured of their quality, Johnson staked the last of his money against a string the breeder was taking down to Maryland on a card game that night. So obsessed was he with this opportunity, Johnson resolved that if he did not win he would follow the man and steal the horses.

“I’m not much given to cards,” the horse dealer said when pressed.

“Then what sport might entice you to wager?” Johnson asked, unwilling to relinquish his goal.

The man studied him a moment, tugging at his goatee. “I might consider rasslin’ you for the string,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile twitching at his lips.

Johnson laughed. “Sure you would. You’re taller and you outweigh me by a good twenty pounds.”

“Whadya got to be scairt about?” his adversary pressed, stepping close and squeezing Johnson’s arm muscle. “I’m older than you and you don’t look like no weaklin’.”

It wasn’t fear of the other’s size that put Johnson off. He’d done his share of brawling and, at one point, had earned his living as a slave-breaker, pummeling recalcitrant blacks into submission. He knew size alone was never a consideration in that pursuit. Still, wrestling was a slippery game and one could never be certain of the outcome. Besides, shrewd judge of character that he was, he already had arrived at a better means of achieving his desire with less effort. He was amazed at the beauty of the idea and how it had come to him like a flash of lightning across a summer sky as he thought about Schlussel’s major enterprise.

“You want us to sit on kegs of gunpowder?” the other asked, his eyes already bright and swollen with fear.

“That’s right. We’ll each plunk down on a keg and light the fuse with one of these,” he said, proffering a stogie. “First one to hop off loses. You haint scairt, are you?”

Johnson had judged his victim correctly. Eyes darting like bugs on a pond, already perspiring and wheezing, the farmer gave in, unable to back down in front of his neighbors. “Haint no braver man in Dauphin County,” he said, puffing out his chest. “I’ll outlast you, you Virginia cockadoodle.”

Two kegs of powder with fuses attached were quickly procured from a teamster whose wagon was parked in the yard and who had been a witness to the conversation. It was of no consequence but Johnson was unaware the driver was carrying a cargo from Schlussel’s factory to Harrisburg.

“I’ll thank you to take your sport outside,” the worried tavern-keep told them.

It was a bold stunt, though no true test of Johnson’s courage. In the sunlit yard, he calmly perched upon his keg, puffing his cigar, but hardly had time to work up a sweat of anxiety before his foe leapt up and stomped out the fuse of his keg which had burned barely an inch. “You win,” he cried. “I may be a fool, but I haint crazy.”

As well as print formats.)