Posted on 11/04/2015 at 12:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

 We all love setting out-of-office replies, but receiving them rarely brings much of a smile to your face ... unless you emailed Chris Impey this fall.

In that case, you (like us) would’ve received the following unexpected message: “I'll be in southern India teaching Buddhist monks cosmology as part of the ‘Science for Monks’ program from Sept. 24 to Oct. 11. I'll have some email access, but it may be erratic during that time.”

When he’s not teaching monks, Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and deputy head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona.

And when he’s not teaching students, he’s helping to educate the general population by writing and editing scientific fiction.

Here’s what Impey had to say about science, religion, and writing.

SADYE: How did you end up being invited to the “Science for Monks” program?

CHRIS: I got a call out of the blue from a young American postdoc who had been tapped by the Dalai Lama to start a program to help the Tibetan monastic tradition move into the 21st century with the addition of math and science.

My part in the program is to teach astronomy, and the monks and nuns I teach are the most inspiring and dedicated students I have.

Inspiring because of their personal stories — most are operational orphans who will probably never see their families or homeland again.

Dedicated because they have enormous discipline and stamina yet they approach learning with playfulness and humility.

SADYE: The Dalai Lama wrote the foreword to “Before The Void” (the story of Impey’s experience with the first “Science for Monks” session). Is this something you sought from him, or did he offer?

CHRIS: The answer is in between. It was mentioned to me by the Head of the Tibetan Library that the Dalai Lama might be able to write a foreword, and when I enthusiastically agreed, he made a request. Months later it emerged from the labyrinth of the Dalai Lama's personal office.

SADYE: Most of your work is nonfiction; what inspired you to branch into fiction?  

CHRIS: After four or five books, I was chafing slightly at the limitations of nonfiction, so I wanted to stretch myself and explore a looser format, and learn about plotting and character development. I consider my first novel experimental and not entirely successful, but it was fun (and exhausting) to write.

I self-published through necessity. Even though I have an agent in New York, and she has helped me get published by Random House and Norton, she was not keen on me straying from the path of popular science. So I did it myself.

Learning to navigate the worlds of Kindle and Create Space was an interesting experience. I'm sure I will return to fiction at some point in the future.

SADYE: You told American Scientist that "we face a crisis of science literacy in this country, and a large part of the population has disengaged from a scientific way of thinking.” If you had unlimited power, how would you address this?

CHRIS: It's a slow boiling crisis that plays out in the public arena when issues that have been resolved by scientists long ago, like the fact of evolution or the near certainty that the planet is warming and that we are the cause, are subject to acrimonious debate.

The United States is the only country in the Western world where science is enmeshed in politics, to the detriment of science. Because of this vexing blend of politics, culture, religion, and science, improving science literacy will not be easy.

Part of the answer lies in the schools, where teachers in general have a difficult time, and where it's very hard to retain or recruit science teachers. If I had unlimited power, I would transform the landscape of teaching, and provide strong incentives for science and math teachers.

I would also impose a "truth test" on politicians, where they pay a visible price for any ad hominem attacks on science or egregious misstatements of scientific fact.

SADYE: What authors have inspired your writing style?

CHRIS: I've always admired writers with a broad range who can turn their hand to scientific ideas if they want, like Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis and John Updike. As a Scot, I also admire Iain Banks, who was a very innovative writer.

* * *

To learn more about or contact Chris, visit his website and follow him on Twitter. You can purchase his books on his website.

Categories: Author Interview

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