A Brief Career in Science Journalism

September 27, 2011 · 1 comment

Chem Matters

Like Howl’s moving castle, Chez Belm houses a collection of autonomous processes over which I have little control. In the (almost) sixteen years that I’ve lived in the house, I have noticed that books and other printed matter eventually collect on the third floor in the room behind my office. In order to create a closed-loop cycle and accommodate the never-ending influx of new books, I have to clean out the back room shelves, toss old magazines, box up books, and carry them to the Archives section of the Deep Storage Facility.

I was halfway through one of those cycles when I unearthed a stack of Chem Matters, a magazine published by the Education Division of the American Chemical Society for high school chemistry students. Its purpose, as seen on front cover, is “demystifying everyday chemistry.” For two issues I participated in that effort, the result of a roundabout sequence of events that almost got me fired from my job.

Friends of mine were founding members of the National Capitol Area Skeptics (NCAS), an organization devoted to the promotion of critical thinking and scientific understanding. They publish a newsletter – Skeptical Eye – for which my friend was the editor. He suggested that I write a regular column, “Don’t Try This at Home,” in which I tested kitchen gadgets advertised on television to see if their claims were scientifically justified. I wrote about two products, which I tested in our condo’s tiny kitchen (prior to the establishment of the Belm Utility Research Kitchen), then got too busy to continue with the column.

A year later, I was contacted by the editor of Chem Matters, who was also a member of NCAS. She had read my two columns and wanted my permission to reprint them in the magazine. She had already obtained permission from the editor of Skeptical Eye, so my OK was all that was needed. I was happy to help out, and so in December of 1996 and then October of 1977 my examinations of the Silver Lightning silver cleaning product and the Miracle Thaw food defroster appeared. I even received a $150 honorarium, the first time – and last, to date – that I had been paid for something I had written.

Shortly after the publication of the second article, I received a phone call from my boss, who was a publisher in the college textbook division of McGraw-Hill, where I worked as a multimedia producer:

“The strangest thing happened yesterday. My son came home from school with a chemistry magazine with an article by someone named ‘David Shaw’. He asked me if it was the same ‘David Shaw’ that worked for me. I was ready to dismiss it as a coincidence until I saw the little bio that identified the author as ‘a multimedia producer for McGraw-Hill.’ Do yo know of any other ‘David Shaw’s that fit that description?”

“Nope, it’s me.”

“I’d hate to think you were unhappy with your current job, or that you thought you were underpaid and in need of a second freelance position. You’re not unhappy, are you?”

I didn’t like the turn the conversation had taken. “I’m not unhappy.” Rather than explain the chain of events that resulted I’m my being published, I waited to hear what Boss Man was going to say next.

“Good. Would a raise make you happier?”

“How could it not?”

“I’m glad we both agree. But it would be difficult to explain any further appearances of your articles in a science magazine not owned by McGraw-Hill, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I’d have to agree.”

“Good. Then we’ll consider the mater settled.”

I wasn’t sure what “settled” meant in that context, but a few months later I was promoted to a position with a higher salary. Boss Man had made good on his threat/promise. Little did he know that set in motion a chain of events that resulted in my deciding that working for a huge corporation was a sucker’s game, one that I no longer wanted to play. And it had all begun with a magazine article.

1 comment

James O'Keefe September 30, 2011 at 11:51 am

Ah. Keeping quiet was the best strategy here. Congratulations!

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