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NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce’s latest report explores her own universe

Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life is Nell Greenfieldboyce's first book.
W.W. Norton, Timothy Devine
Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life is Nell Greenfieldboyce's first book.

“Transient and strange” is how Walt Whitman described a “year of meteors” in the mid-19th century, weaving his poetry through his observations of all-things celestial.

“Transient and Strange” is also the title of Nell Greenfieldboyce’s first book. And while her reporting for National Public Radio is deeply rooted in fact and data, her just-published collection of essays is as heartfelt as it is sensibly precise.

“This is a new experience for me. I've been a writer and a reporter for almost 30 years, right? Which is kind of hard to imagine. And so I've done a lot of things publicly, in terms of radio and podcasts and articles,” said Greenfieldboyce. “But I've never written a book before. And it's a strange thing. It's a different beast. “

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Nell Greenfieldboyce is here. We know her work on this broadcast…she's taken us to so many places. Her bio reminds us that she has taken us inside a space shuttle when it was earthbound. And then the very definition of being earthbound: the bottom of a coal min… and so many other places. But here comes her debut book, “Transient and Strange,” which takes us places we never would have imagined and very personal for our guest. And here she is, Nell Greenfieldboyce. Good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hey. Good morning. Thank you.

PRENTICE: Some time ago… and I think it was about a decade ago… you had some additions to a blog titled “The Last Word on Nothing,”, which comes from a Victor Hugo line.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes. “Science says the first word on everything and the last word on nothing.” My friends who are science writers have this website that is called “The Last Word on Nothing.” And a lot of professional science writers sometimes use that blog as a way to write creatively. And I wrote a couple of essays for that, and I realized I really enjoy writing essays. I really enjoy taking sort of personal things in my life and combining them with reporting… and stories from the history of science that I find are really resonant with things happening today.

PRENTICE: And those “first words” and “last words.” I mean…that is you. That's your intersection.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I don't know about that.

PRENTICE: But you know….the words you share with us. You bring science to us through those words.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's true. I work every day as an NPR science reporter. But, you know, I also have a personal life, and I've got my kids… and I go around and have my various experiences. And, while I had written a lot about science as a reporter, you know, writing more personal work was a real departure and an interesting exercise. I wasn't always expecting to write about some of the things I wrote about in this collection… which covers everything from meteorites to fleas to black holes to tornadoes. And I have to say, I think that the stories I tell about my kids come out the best. They're by far the funniest, most interesting people.

PRENTICE: And these are the places that your book takes us: your kids’ initial fears of tornadoes. There's a sweatshirt from Target… Moon rock jewelry… playlists about journalism that include a particular Neil Diamond song, Plus, there’s a trip with your kids to a museum exhibit of medical oddities.  And then there are the importance of moments of silence in what we do. Could you talk… by the way, could you give a little bit of that secret away from our industry….recording those moments of silence and you put it so perfectly in your book.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, sure. As radio reporters, when we do an interview anywhere, we always have to collect what's called ambient sound. So, you know, let's say you're interviewing someone in a rainforest or you're interviewing someone in a factory or something. You always want to get a good stretch of recording of just the ambient sound with nobody talking. We need it for our audio production purposes. But as a practical matter, it means you're often standing there next to people and asking them not to talk to you. It's like, “Excuse me, extremely important person. Could you not talk to me for a while so we can stand here in silence next to each other?” And I find standing next to people in silence or sitting next to people in silence to be very interesting. It's just socially strange. It's not something we normally do. We don't normally hang out with someone and just sit, you know, maybe like a very close friend, but not usually just other people. And so I write about what that feels like and the way people react. And it's a part of our job that is one of the weirder ones, I would say.

PRENTICE: And then comes this, this heartbreaking, mind blowing final part of your book, which you call your “eugenic project,” your final part about your incredibly expensive, heartbreaking attempts to have kids while your husband's kidney failures get progressively worse. This was not what I was expecting. Oh my gosh, and it's the final part of your book. But is that why you wrote this book?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, no. I wasn't even expecting to write a book, honestly. I was writing some essays and then they sort of started congealing together. But no, no, I mean, I wrote other essays before that, but, you know… that is a personal essay and it deals with issues related to having children in the context of having a familial genetic disease. But, you know, to me, it was just a powerful example of how events from history continue to sort of resonate in science and medicine today. And, you know, many of the things that I've covered as a reporter, like the Human Genome Project and, you know, going to the White House and, you know, hearing announcements and stuff. They actually like, you know, sort of played out in my own life, which is a very strange thing as a science reporter… to be reporting on something and then, you know, have the world deliver that right to your door, so to speak.

PRENTICE: But you throw that word “eugenics” out there… and you deal with this in the book… and bar the doors, because here comes a hugely, unfortunately, political conversation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Eugenics has an ugly history. It's definitely something that, you know, the history of science. It's a dark, dark chapter. And I think a lot of Americans are not aware of how it played out here in the United States. They might associate it with Germany and the Nazis, but they don't think about how it, um, affected Americans in serious, serious, serious ways. And, you know, I think that there's a tendency to look at this stuff as history. But I think that in this, as in so many other things, history is…..it not even past….it’s not dead. It's not even past.

PRENTICE: Yeah, but it is where we are. Let's talk for just a moment about 2024. It is a hugely political year. Do you… by covering science… do you embrace that? Do you look at this as an opportunity to set a few records straight on what is accurate and what is not? Because science is a bit of a football in the political arena.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes. So, I mean, everything is kind of political to a certain extent. I mean, it's true that 2024 is a big year, but when I think about the year, I often am thinking about the eclipse on April 8th, there's a total solar eclipse that will be seen across much of the United States. So that looms large in my mind.

PRENTICE: Let me pause you there. Where will you be? Have you made your travel plans yet?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it depends on the weather, doesn't it? We'll see how the clouds are, but yeah, I'll be somewhere where there's no clouds. Let's put it that way.

PRENTICE: I mean, does that mean south of the border?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The further south, the chances of better weather go up. I think up in Maine it might be a little more challenging..

PRENTICE:, I guess it crosses right into Atlantic Canada, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I honestly, I can't remember where the path goes… if it goes out into the ocean or if it goes up, but it's going to be a huge deal, I think of events like that. But maybe that shows what a nerd I am.

PRENTICE: Thank goodness for that nerdiness. So here we are. The book is about to hit the shelves. What's your level of excitement and or nervousness?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I'm excited. You know, this is a new experience for me. I've been a writer and a reporter for almost 30 years, right? Which is kind of hard to imagine. And so I've done a lot of things publicly, in terms of radio and podcasts and articles, but I've never written a book before. And it's a strange thing. It's a different beast.

PRENTICE: You're about to engage with a lot of folks… in particular about family planning and the challenge that goes with that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I guess I'm writing about it from a science perspective…

PRENTICE: But so personal and so…. I'll just say it. So wonderful. So, congratulations on that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh thank you.

PRENTICE: The book is “Transient and Strange,: and we look forward to so much in 2024, especially in April. We don't know where she'll be, but she'll be there for us for the eclipse. And she is Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thank you for what you do every day. And thanks for giving us some time this morning.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Find reporter George Prentice@georgepren

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