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Science Communicator

Peter Macinnis is a science communicator and writer who works for various publishers, mainly Pier 9 and the National library of Australia, as well as occasionally contributing to ABC radio and ABC online.

In which area or areas of science do you work? When did you first become interested in this career? How did you first become interested in this career?
What education and training do you have for your job and how long has it taken? How has your career progressed? What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?
What skills do you use in your job? What do you enjoy most about your job? What has been a highlight of your career?
What is the most exciting aspect of your job? What do you like least about your job? What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for?
What are some of the advantages of working in this field? What are some of the disadvantages of working in this field? How has your work contributed to science?
How has your work benefited society? Where do you see yourself in five years time? Find out more about Science Writing and Communication from Peter

In which area or areas of science do you work?

I am a science writer/science communicator: I chase all of the sweet science that is happening and write it up for books, both for children (in the past through Puffin/Penguin and Allen and Unwinn, more recently the National Library of Australia and Pier 9) and for a more general and adult audience through Allen and Unwin, though Pier 9 is now my main publisher. I also do radio talks, especially Ockham's Razor on ABC, and I have done essays for The Slab, the ABC's online science site. I also tend to be asked to do short and pithy articles for educational journals, because I am a bit of a pot-stirrer.

I trained as a botanist, but I have to be as at home with quantum computing, the fine structure constant. 19th century dentures or Martian plate tectonics as I am with the inner workings of a bryophyte. That mainly requires a good general background knowledge of the sciences, and the ability to get to grips with the intricacies -- or to know somebody who can clarify it. I tend to use one particular e-mail list as a sounding board-cum-question place -- though most of the questions are asked by others.


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When did you first become interested in this career?

I think I have always assumed I would be a writer of some sort, but originally, I planned to write technically precise science fiction -- but I was born too late for that. So I turned to explaining science. It is worth noting that my slow academic start was related to my connection over several years with 'honi soit'.


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How did you first become interested in this career?

It found me, really. I was dabbling a bit, but I was planning a rather different sort of school text, based on the actual work of scientists, described so that the experiments they did could be repeated or at least analysed, and I found a bit of fraud that is on the Web (see Fraudo the Frog?) -- two chemists had faked their data, it seemed. I phoned Robyn Williams, expecting him to interview me, but he asked me to write it -- and if the length was right, he would use it on "Ockham's Razor", otherwise on the "Science Show". That was about 1985, and the planned book came out in a different form in 2009.

Moral: NEVER throw out those old files!

Now back in 1985, a few people were communicating about science, but it wasn't a career, so I was an education bureaucrat, but I decided to join the Powerhouse Museum which was about to open, because I was groping my way to doing something about the public understanding of science, as it used to be called.


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What education and training do you have for your job and how long has it taken?

Ah, yes, education. Well, for starters, who said it was finalised? I completed ten first-year courses before I graduated, and took seven years to get there -- I did lots of reading during that time, and I used to read "New Scientist" and "Scientific American" -- they used to take months to arrive then, and I read lots of books, but that was for fun and information.

These days, the main skills are in searching online, both original source and also in online books and journals, then tracking down the original books themselves. I still use Fisher Library on a regular basis.

I'm not at all sure I have the qualifications even now -- it is partly a matter of getting the material, partly a matter of acting like a journalist to find an interesting slant.

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How has your career progressed?

I am now at the stage where I have all the work I want, and it tends to find me. I get rather fussy if a deadline is endangered, because that is a contract, so far as I am concerned. I also know that I will only continue to get people shoving work at me if I deliver on schedule. At this stage, I have enough new work from word of mouth to keep me happy -- now that I have given up the day job. Officially, I'm retired, in reality, I work harder than ever, but attending to my priorities.

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What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?

What's a typical day? I often say that if I went to school now, I would be diagnosed as ADHD -- I spent a number of years as a teacher, and I have tried to be the sort of teacher to kids like me that some of my better teachers were to me. I need to have five things going on at once, so when I get bored, I switch. Today, I have been researching the next book, planning publicity for a book due out in three weeks, and preparing a presentation to give in Queensland at a writers' festival next weekend. I also read last week's issue of 'Science', which I get online.

On a good day, I might generate as much as 6000 words, though 2000 is more common. Of course, by the time I start, I will have put in several months on research, and I will have a database which includes first drafts of the tops and tails of each chapter and sub-chapter.

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What skills do you use in your job?

Mostly, finding-out, then BS-detection, getting past the flackery and the press releases.

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What do you enjoy most about your job?

Finding out about stuff, making new connections.

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What has been a highlight of your career?

Probably getting an Eve Pownall Honour Book award from the Children's Book Council of Australia. I had been persuaded by a publisher to tackle a history for younger readers of the Kokoda Track campaign. I wrote it, it was crap, so I ditched it and started again. It was a lot of hard work (and my editor, Karen Tayleur put a lot of work in as well), but it paid off.

Just as I refuse to admit to any more than advanced middle age, so I refuse to admit to any single event called "the highlight" -- but in the past, I have done several delightful fraud investigations that are in the public domain (Dulong and Petit's Law, the high-power low-morals marketing of the PLATO computer-based education system, which I blew out of the water), and one other which is confidential. I enjoy nailing crooks by analysing the data and showing that something does not compute. I plan all my books in a spreadsheet, but I also know how to catch frauds by pattern analysis.

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What is the most exciting aspect of your job?

Probably the chance to catch minds and warp them in interesting ways, to make people know some of the joy of science.

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What do you enjoy least about your job?

Not having enough time to do all the books I want to do. In particular, I have eight 'young adult' historical fiction books planned, set in Australia in the period 1852-1865, all plotted and four drafted, but they are on hold. There is a heavy emphasis on the science and the technology of the era, and I need a great deal more research to manage that well enough.

I have a list of about sixty books I would like to write, but I hardly ever get to it, as titles seem to emerge and claim the high ground.

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What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for?

Teaching science, computing or mathematics, writing bad limericks, being a paperweight for small pieces of paper.

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What are some of the advantages to working in this field?

The sheer joy of being able to drive the enquiries in a direction that suits me. Like I said, any mundane judge would class me as ADHD.

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What are some of the disadvantages to working in this field?

None that I can see

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How has your work contributed to science?

I like to think I have encouraged some new scientists by my interest, and I may well have got a few people interested in science. It is guess work, but I expect that I am winning on that one.

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How has your work benefited society?

The "Renaissance Man" may no longer exist, but new renaissance people can exist if knowledge and information can be packaged in such a way that people may get wisdom and insight from it. I act as a sort of leaven in the mix, I hope.

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Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

Probably doing much the same thing, perhaps slowing down a bit, but there are LOTS of books I want to write.

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Find out more about Science Writing and Communication

If you wish to ask Peter for additional information, you can email UniServe Science and we will contact Peter for you. Make sure you include Peter's name and occupation in the Subject line.

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