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Author Q & A | Fred Bortz

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on September 14, 2012

ISBN-13: 9780761386605
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 1/28/2012
Pages: 64

Award-winning science writer and physicist Fred Bortz is author of 20 books of nonfiction for children including the Junior Library Guild selection Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future. The former Carnegie Mellon University researcher combines strong storytelling with expertise in physics, engineering and science education to reach young readers and audiences.

Bortz explores energy alternatives, book cover design, adult readership and bowties with Book Kvetch.

Why did you decide to tackle the topic of nuclear reactors in Meltdown!?

It was not so much a decision as a realization that I was perfectly positioned to write an important and informative book. In my proposal, which I submitted on March 29, 2011, only 18 days after the disaster at Fukushima, I noted that public discussion of the disaster was echoing what I predicted in an earlier book for young readers.

Here’s how I introduced that proposal:

The ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami has re-invigorated an ongoing public policy debate of great consequences for the future of today’s youth: What is the role of nuclear power in the energy mix of the twenty-first century? Is nuclear technology too risky to develop? Or is it too promising to overlook despite the technological challenges?

This book does not propose to answer those questions, which encompass not only nuclear science and technology but also public policy. Rather it proposes to prepare the readers to answer them in the many guises in which they will appear throughout the readers’ lives.

I then went on to describe my credentials as a writer and a scientist, including three years early in my career in a nuclear reactor design group. Most important of my writing qualifications is an earlier book that serves as a foundation for Meltdown!

The main theme of Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure and Success is that engineering success results from a process of learning from failure. Chapter 5, “Fission with Melted Rods,” describes nuclear power technology and the very different causes and consequences of the nuclear reactor accidents at Three Mile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl.

The chapter ends with these prescient paragraphs:

Still, sometime in your lifetime, the question of nuclear power is likely to arise again. The designs will be safer, the plans for waste disposal will be better, and the concerns about other sources of electric power will grow.

Both sides will argue that we have learned the lessons of TMI and Chernobyl. One side will say that the lessons teach us that nuclear power plant technology will always be too risky to try. The other side will say that we have learned the lessons of failure and that we can succeed in spite of the risks.

Coming to the right decision then will be no easier than it is now, nor will it be any less important. TMI and Chernobyl are two spectacular failures from which we will be learning for a long time.

In Meltdown!, I proposed to add Fukushima to that narrative.

How was Japan’s response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami different from the nuclear reactor emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant?

One of the things I found remarkable in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns was this contrast. Japan’s high level of preparedness for major earthquakes and tsunamis and engineering expertise kept building damage to a minimum and limited the death toll to less than 10 percent of the tragedies in the comparable 2005 Aceh (Sumatra) tsunami and the lesser 2010 Haitian earthquake. The same engineering expertise should have enabled the Fukushima Daiichi reactors to shut down safely, but it didn’t.

Was it a problem with the plant or reactor design that should have been caught? Was it a regulatory or political failure? Those questions are still being sorted out, and my challenge in writing the book was to focus on the implications of those open questions for my readers, who, like the readers of Catastrophe! before them, will have to make difficult decisions.

In Meltdown you write about the history of nuclear fission and an important scientist, Lise Meitner. What did you want young readers to know about Meitner?

In a book like this, having some interesting sidebars allows me to make human connections with readers that go beyond the facts. In the late 1930s, Austrian-born Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Stern were the first scientists to recognize that some peculiar discoveries in her former colleague Otto Hahn’s laboratory were the result of nuclear fission, the phenomenon that makes both nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors possible. That’s a fact that makes her important in the story.

But what makes her story particularly fascinating is the relationship with Hahn, who helped her get started in a career in the early twentieth century, when women were explicitly excluded from most laboratories. Later, when Meitner was a well-known professor, Hahn again helped her in a very different way. He gave her some valuables that enabled her to flee Germany after Hitler invaded Austria. Her Austrian citizenship and her conversion-of-convenience to Christianity from Judaism were no protection after that event.

I also had a personal motive to tell Lise Meitner’s story. When I was just starting college and studying physics, I was dating a young woman who was her distant cousin. She asked me if I had ever heard of Meitner, and I hadn’t. That had nothing to do with the reason we stopped dating after a while, but it certainly influenced me whenever I encountered Meitner’s story later in my education. Meltdown! is the second of my books that includes Meitner’s story. I have a longer “Scientist of the Decade” sidebar featuring her in the 1930s chapter of my high-school/college level reference, Physics: Decade by Decade (Twentieth-Century Science set, Facts On File, 2007).

The book’s design features orange alert colors and radioactive warning signs. Tell me about the significance of these visual details and how they were received by readers?

I’ll leave it to you and other readers to tell me how they responded to the cover, but my editor, her colleagues, and I were given several alternatives to choose from. We were unanimous and unambiguous in our preference for this one. I shared it with a couple of author friends who were also librarians, and the only concern that arose was that it might convey an alarmist tone.

I was sensitive to that, too, as you might gather from a quoted paragraph from my proposal above: “This book does not propose to answer those questions. Rather it proposes to prepare the readers to answer them in the many guises in which they will appear throughout the readers’ lives.”

In the end, I decided that the dramatic symbol rendered in hot oranges and reds was not an alarmist message but a serious warning that if nuclear technology has its place, it also needs appropriate design constraints to make it both safe and politically acceptable.

The other design elements are also carefully chosen. In the center is the map of Japan, with the earthquake’s epicenter in the middle of the circle of the nuclear warning symbol. Also at the epicenter is the dot of the large bold exclamation point of the one-word title. The exclamation point follows that word, meltdown, which is in a black font that looks like it was written with molten metal. The subtitle, in orange and white, is mainly in block large and small capital letters, conveying that the factual content is not only about the nuclear disaster in Japan but also about the impact of that event on the world’s energy future.

Finally, my name is in a black script font similar to the title font but without the molten metal effect.

In the end, I think the cover serves its purpose extremely well. It draws readers to the book and, if they try to judge the book by all the elements in its cover, they are likely to be correct about its content and approach.

Who else besides young readers do you hope to target in your books?

I try to target the adult intermediaries between me and my readers, the parents, teachers, and library professionals who recognize the importance of my topics but may not understand the science well. I’m pleased that in personal contact with them and in reviews, they often talk about finally understanding something that had been beyond them previously. They especially comment about the clarity and way I weave factual information into a strong narrative. I often call myself a “teller of true tales,” so it is particularly gratifying to get feedback telling me that they see my work the same way.

What kind of potential do you think lies in other energy sources that do not add extra carbon dioxide to the air? Hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar?

Each has its strengths and limitations, which I hope I convey well in Meltdown! One topic that I had to delete in the end to meet length and format constraints is the economics of electricity production. I wrote a section about the difference between baseline power and intermittent sources, the need for energy storage devices, and the importance of developing a smart grid; but it had to be cut in the last edit.

When I saw that Lerner was developing online “eSource” materials, I used the deleted section as the basis of a supplemental reading called “The energy mix, the energy grid, and energy storage.” I hope teachers and librarians make good use of that, especially for the upper end of my target audience.

What do you think about energy extraction from the oceans’ waves?

That is one of many possibilities for future development, though then issue is the low concentration of energy compared to other sources and the transmission of it from where it is produced to where it is needed. But I actually address it in another eSource item, a classroom project to research and recommend to a President a national energy policy. Among the energy sources I recommend researching are potential future technologies such as nuclear fusion, tidal energy, and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC, which uses the difference between surface and deep ocean temperatures to drive a heat engine). All of these have been on the technological radar for many years, but none of them is currently ready for commercialization.

Tell us about your signature bowtie. What kind of response do you get from young audiences at author visits or book events?

People love my bowties, especially when I explain that I tie them myself. Often at the end of a school visit, I grab the ends and pull to untie it. At a recent school visit, I was thrilled when the students all showed up for my talk wearing large, colorful cardboard bows. 

I also have a story about when and why I switched to bows. When I started writing full time in 1996, a friend came up with a Dr. Fred logo that included, at my request, question marks (nose and ears) and exclamation points (hair). She put Dr. as the bridge of my glasses and Fred across a bowtie. It was a hit, but it didn’t change my wardrobe.

Then in 1999 and 2000, when I was working on Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch, a cartoonist asked for a picture to create a caricature of Dr. Fred as a guide through the book. She ignored my straight tie and put my image in a lab coat, baseball cap, and bowtie. I decided the world was sending me a message.

A clip-on tie would never do for my scientific and mathematical sensibility. And standard sizes and patterns would also never do. So I found bowtie.com, which offers custom fabrics and all sizes and styles of bowtie. Over the years, I have developed quite a collection. For family and community events, I usually wear standard sizes and a mix of custom and commercial ties. But when I visit schools and book events, it’s usually a large eye-catching one, such as the one you can see here. I’ve since added a bowtie with physics equations, too.

Meltdown! by Fred Bortz is a highly worthwhile read that prompts young readers (and their adults) to ask questions about the future of nuclear power plant technology.

Category: Juvenile Nonfiction, Science

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