… perseverance, discipline, play, craft study. To these I would add, persistence. The meaning of persistence approximates that of perseverance but I view perseverance as more passive — staying with a project or an arrangement in the face of challenges. Persistence also connotes tenacity but is suggestive of more active efforts. I recall an example of successful persistence on my part. My books often include interviews with relevant individuals. On one occasion I wrote and telephoned a request for an interview with a New Jersey mayor, about his policies regarding terrorism preparedness. His office denied my request, claiming that the mayor had no available time to speak. Some weeks later I tried again, and received the same response. I then wrote to his office that I had just spoken about the subject with a political rival and that it would be a shame not to hear the mayor’s response. A day later, I received a call from the office to set up an appointment. My persistence, including the newly added incentive, seems to have made the difference.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leonard A Cole.
Dr. Leonard A. Cole is the author of Chasing the Ghost: Nobelist Fred Reines and the Neutrino. An expert on bioterrorism and on terror medicine, he is an adjunct professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (Emergency Medicine) and at Rutgers University-Newark (Political Science). At the medical school he is director of the Program on Terror Medicine and Security. He has written for the The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, Scientific American, and The Sciences. He has testified before congressional committees and made invited presentations to several government agencies including the U.S. Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Office of Technology Assessment.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
An important part of my career path includes an inclination to write. Writing assignments are part of the learning experience since one’s earliest school years. As I made my way from elementary school through college, fulfilling a writing assignment was sometimes satisfying, sometimes burdensome, but primarily in service to another classroom subject — science, history, literature, and the like. My decision to study political science in graduate school at Columbia University was not based on a wish to advance my writing skills, but rather to learn and perhaps afterwards to teach. But my courses were filled with written assignments and by the time I received my PhD in 1970, I recognized three writing-related characteristics that I had developed during my years of graduate study. First, with the aid of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and other publications on writing skills, I became a better writer. Second, aiming for clarity and concision also enhanced my understanding and descriptions of the subject under consideration. Third, though writing is not always easy, the pleasure of developing a story or a nicely turned phrase can be immense. In 2012, I was interviewed by Superscript, a Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences journal. The resulting article included a reference to how my Columbia experience enriched my writing skills. I have always been especially pleased when reviews of my books refer to the clarity of my writing.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
September 11, 2001 is widely remembered as the day that highjacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Less well-recalled is that soon after, anthrax cases began to be identified in Florida, New York, Washington and other locations in the eastern United States. The source was eventually found to be letters containing powdered anthrax spores that had been mailed to media and political figures. Later tests showed spores in a postal drop box in Princeton, New Jersey, which apparently was used by the mailer. Spores that leaked from the letters had already contaminated mail distribution centers, post offices, the Capitol, and dozens of other government and private buildings. Between September and November, 22 people became infected, five of whom died, while 30,000 other exposed individuals required prophylactic antibiotic treatment. Given my expertise in bioterrorism and my residential proximity to contaminated sites in New Jersey, I was drawn to investigate the event. As with other books that I’ve written, my research included interviewing of relevant individuals. My research for The Anthrax Letters included meeting with anthrax victims, their families, the doctors who treated them, and law enforcement personnel assigned to the case. The fact that the disease was deliberately perpetrated added to the horror of the event. My book gave voice to many of the affected individuals and I was gratified that it was named an Honor Book by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
My professional life has included teaching and writing and, for a period, the clinical practice of dental medicine. When engaged in each of these activities I have given it my undivided attention. My patients, students, and editors seemed unfazed by my trifurcated interests. A friend chuckled that I surely was the best dentist among political scientists and the best political scientist among dentists. I think my successful navigation of these disciplines has stemmed from my ability to fully concentrate on whichever one I was engaged in. Actually, I would restructure my friend’s humorous characterization to a serious one, that I sought to be the best I could be in each field.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Years ago, when deciding to build a reflector telescope, I acquired a 6-inch-diameter flat glass plate along with other necessary parts. According to an instruction manual, the plate’s surface needed to be shaped into a proper concavity that would serve as the telescope’s reflective mirror. After 3 months that included hours of laborious grinding, the telescope was ready for use. I was shocked to see a double image of the moon, signifying that my grinding had been faulty. Friends thought the double image amusing and one burst into laughter at the sight. I too began to sense humor in the misbegotten experience. The lesson for me was that when scanning the heavens, I’d better use a properly manufactured instrument than one of my own construction.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am currently focused on promoting interest in my new book, Chasing the Ghost: Nobelist Fred Reines and the Neutrino. It is a biography of my charismatic cousin, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his co-discovery of the remarkable subatomic particle. I anticipate returning eventually to issues regarding virulent biological agents including whether their release might have been deliberate, accidental, or of natural cause. The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly brought this issue to the fore.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your new book Chasing the Ghost?
As I was completing the book, in 2020, a friend introduced me to Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the science classic, Gödel, Escher, Bach. After meeting Fred Reines at the 1995 Nobel awards ceremony in Stockholm, Hofstadter wrote a brief reminiscence about the experience. While expressing affection for Fred, he recalled his own fascination with neutrinos. His father, Robert Hofstadter, was a distinguished physicist and Douglas picked up snippets about various particles from him. When Douglas was a third grader, “in my kidlike way, I’d invented some variant of tag in which my little friends zipped about the playground being electrons and positrons and photons, while I got to savor the self-assigned glory of being a neutrino! It was fun for us all, though of course we had barely any inkling of what these mysterious micro-entities were.” Hofstadter’s charming recollection, previously unpublished, is reproduced in the appendix of Chasing the Ghost.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Fred was a multi-talented individual who, in addition to his great scientific accomplishments, wrote poetry and essays and acted and sang in stage performances. Learning about him can be inspirational and exciting for any reader.
Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.
I think the first four “things” are aptly listed in the next question: perseverance, discipline, play, craft study. To these I would add, persistence. The meaning of persistence approximates that of perseverance but I view perseverance as more passive — staying with a project or an arrangement in the face of challenges. Persistence also connotes tenacity but is suggestive of more active efforts. I recall an example of successful persistence on my part. My books often include interviews with relevant individuals. On one occasion I wrote and telephoned a request for an interview with a New Jersey mayor, about his policies regarding terrorism preparedness. His office denied my request, claiming that the mayor had no available time to speak. Some weeks later I tried again, and received the same response. I then wrote to his office that I had just spoken about the subject with a political rival and that it would be a shame not to hear the mayor’s response. A day later, I received a call from the office to set up an appointment. My persistence, including the newly added incentive, seems to have made the difference.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I am persistent, as described with an example in my answer to the previous question, though I don’t consider myself a “great writer.” Rather, I am someone who derives satisfaction from writing and gratitude that my words might be appreciated by others.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’ve long been a fan of books comprehensible to non-scientists that offer contemporary understandings about the universe. They include George Gamow’s One, Two, Three…Infinity, first published in the 1940s; three decades of publications by Carl Sagan beginning in the 1970s with Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection; and more recently Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. These books are not only informative, but sources of awe and excitement.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Regrettably, science course requirements for non-science majors have become more lax at several colleges. This trend should be reversed. Familiarity with science and its various fields — physics, chemistry, biology, etc. — can be an anchor to rational thought and behavior. As noted in Chasing the Ghost, Reines addressed this matter as it pertained to physics in a course that he taught for non-science majors, titled Rainbows and Things.
He thought it “an absurdity” that a purportedly educated person not know the physical basis of a rainbow or the essential ideas behind special relativity. Teaching basic principles does not require advanced mathematics or complex formulas, he wrote. His experimental demonstrations involved only the simplest equipment: “I use a candle, a piece of cardboard with a pinhole in it, a large lens, a piece of string, a paper clip. I whistle along with a student to illustrate beat frequencies.”
When he first offered the course in 1972, about 20 students had enrolled. The course proved to be very popular and just two years later was drawing more than 200 students to a class. This demonstraes that when appropriately presented, science courses can be engaging for non-science majors. With this in mind, I was delighted to see the following recent Amazon customer review about Chasing the Ghost.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My website is accessible at https://leonardcole.com