Credit: Sarah Booth

Interview

Nicholas Booth

Author and Broadcaster, recently co-wrote "The Search for Life on Mars: The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time"


Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Nicholas Booth and I am a writer. I read physics at London University before working on Astronomy Now magazine. I then worked for the world’s oldest newspapers: as a science writer for The Observer and then as a technology editor on The Times. I have written a dozen books including an encyclopedia on space, a look at the next century in space as well as a book on the planets and one on the ozone layer. I have broadcast regularly, presented on radio and worked as an editorial director in television and as a mobile publisher. I have an interest in history and unusual characters, and my book “Zigzag”, about the double agent Eddie Chapman, is being made into a film by Tom Hanks. In 2020 “The Search For Life On Mars”, written with Canadian science writer Elizabeth Howell, was published to coincide with the launch of Perseverance. 

What does your role involve?

Scribbling. I was a teenage space nut who then found that I wasn't good enough to do research. I don't think it was called “Impostor Syndrome” then, but I genuinely was an impostor when it came to doing research and being numerate. I ended up writing instead. I had originally thought I would be in the space business and write on the side as a kind of shameful hobby. I have two claims to fame. One is I was the youngest Brit to work at NASA JPL - which sounds like a sea story, but is actually true, and you can find this story here.  The other is I was fired by Patrick Moore - that was from my first job. It would be a better story if it was fired from a cannon.

How did you get your job?

I graduated at a time when the cupboard was bare for space in Britain. This was 1985. I knew I wanted to write and they always say write about what you know. I did the usual office jobs for a few months. A year after leaving college, there was a university graduate tipsheet which used to come in the post. One day it said "Publisher looking for graduate researchers for encyclopedia". Trapdoor for a demon king! So I rang up, ended up doing all the astronomy and space stuff. Through that, I met an editor who was working on a book about Mars. That was published in 1988. Here we are thirty years later and I am back where I started. T.S. Eliot had something profound to say about that; I'm just tickled pink to be back on the Red Planet.

What advice would you give to people looking for a job in your industry?

When I was starting out, scientists and engineers took a dim view of "publicising their activities". It wasn't the done thing. Go and stand over there, away from the people doing the work. You didn't do it. Now everybody wants to do it and there is all this #scicomm activity. For most people starting out, a balance between the two is what you should aim for: if you do research, write about it as a sideline. Why not? The public is paying for your time, so if you can, you should. Getting into journalism and then writing as the day job takes longer, but if that's your game plan, do it. You never know where you might end up. I did it and it's not as though I have any great skill. I was just determined!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

Being able to talk to the experts. There are some really great people in space these days, way more so than when I was reporting. Normal human beings who you might enjoy socialising with. My job is to basically tell a story - as in find a narrative arc about what people are doing. The highest praise I ever had as a reporter was "You actually understand this." That does help, but to get that level of understanding, takes time. I am also constantly amazed that some people manage to make space boring! It is the greatest adventure of our time. I realised that when I was a teenager and, if I have been able to do one thing, it is to tell that story in a way anybody can understand. Happy to share tips to anyone who might need them.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Staying relevant. I wrote about space for ten years in newspapers and by the end, felt stale. So I turned to crime (writing). That's why I wanted to work with Elizabeth on this latest book. Writing about science and space is not easy, it takes effort and practice; but after doing that, telling stories about spies, fraudsters and next up, a thriller, was a doddle. But none of this would have been possible had I not been interested in space as a student. I also think that new voices and writers are important. So after the Mars book, boys and girls, that's me done. It's over to you.

If you were a member of UKSEDS, how did it benefit your career?

I don't think SEDS started until after I graduated. But I seem to recall chairing some things at a conference in the early nineties and interviewing a cosmonaut at one point for you. Why I was asked to do it, I have no idea. Most of the students from then have gone on to greater things! But am happy to have helped and I do think your range of activities today is pretty nifty.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?

On Mars. The chances of NASA or ESA employing an old geezer like me as an astronaut is pretty remote. But you never know. I will qualify for a bus pass then. As we say in the book, somebody who reads it may end up going there. Don't forget to write!

When did you become interested in space?

As a teenager. I was twelve when Viking landed on Mars and that is exactly the right age for it to inspire you. Five years later, I managed to wrangle the summer job at JPL mainly because nobody told me not to be so ridiculous. That, ultimately, is what you should always do. Not listen to the experts - who are invariably bitter and twisted old geezers like me. Dare to dream. You never know where you might end up.

How did you decide which aspect of the space industry to work in?

Fate decided. There is an old saying which is ridiculous as it is wrong. "If you can't, teach" - the greater truth is if you can't do anything, write. At least if you teach, you are doing something useful. But joking aside, you'll find a corner in a field that you can make your own.

Is there anything you wished you’d learned at university that would come in useful now?

Simple. Don't worry. There are so many more pressures on students today, but paradoxically, many more opportunities. So go with the flow, find something that really interests you. If you want to write about it, do. You never know where you'll end up. I still pinch myself that people paid me money to cover all this as a writer.

What is the most exciting space thing you’ve seen or heard about?

Viking, aged 12. At a time when Mission: Impossible! was on TV, NASA had to do it for real. Build and despatch the most sophisticated robot ever designed, all using, in essence, sixties technology. The greatest joy of my life was to talk to all the people who worked on the mission. Four decades later, their words are in our book. 

What are your favourite things to do?

Reading, writing but no arithmetic. My wife and I like to travel, watch obscure films and I like to cook. And happy to help anyone who might want to write about space or do it as a day job. 

You can find Nick on Twitter at @thievesbooks

Author

Christina MacLeod

Christina is an undergraduate student studying towards an MEng in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

Something Wrong?

Are we missing something or spouting nonsense? Let us know!

This site is a work in progress and we're always looking to improve it.

You can get in touch with us on our contact us page.