August 25, 2021
Interview with Gail MacCallum
Position: Managing Editor at Cosmos Magazine
I think all science stories are human stories. If we give people the facts of what’s happening (not just an opinion on whether they’re good or bad), then people get to make their own decisions. It’s not my job to persuade readers. It’s my job to give them the information they need to make up their own minds.
At what age did you decide that what you do as a job now was something you wanted to specialise in?
Elsie, Western Cape College
Hi Elsie – I’m thinking the answer to this should be is something that should inspire a path, but the truth is that I’ve always just been curious. I’ve been working for almost 30 years now and the answer is that I haven’t yet worked out what the job is that I want to specialise in. When I was at school I remember seeing on TV a thoughtful politician who wanted to be prime minister, Kim Beazley. Saying that, while in the past people had had one job, people who were teenagers back in the late 1980s and early 1990s now have about eight separate careers. In the current “now” I listen to educators – thoughtful teachers and school principals – talk about the fact that they are teaching students for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. The best way I can answer is by saying that I’ve always been interested and followed those interests (including poetry, databases, chemistry and coding; design; Tasmanian devils). That has led me to interesting people and – once every so often, the chance to step up to a job I really wanted to do – where weirdly my odd-bod set of skills seemed to make me the perfect person because retrospectively I had the qualifications, but also other things. Trust that your interests make you especially you. Honour your weird. I was good at English and maths, but I wasn’t great – or even very good – at lots of the other things I learned. But what I did become was me – the person who could enter a conversation about literature and algebra, about Australian history and Macintosh computers. The people I would like to hire and help advance are similarly curious and adaptable. I would love to be someone who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up; I envy people I know who were like that. But it wasn’t me, and I think I’ve had a lot of fun working it out on the way.
What would be your favourite magazine article and/or magazine issue you have edited?
Lauren, Southport SHS, Gold Coast
Hi Lauren – great question! The answer is, sorry to say, all of them. Working with a writer on a story, and making a magazine, is one of the great pleasures and privileges. In each of them my starting point is that I believe it matters; that I’m making a difference; that I might have a part in changing the world. For me a magazine and each story in it has to be better than my favourite tree: after all, paper – and ink, and the printers and the trucks that move all this around – has to come from somewhere. So I look for stories and writers that can change the way I see the world. A long time ago a then-young writer Ashley Hay wrote for me that the sound of gum trees in the wind is “like the sound you hear when you push your fingers through your hair – a sound that you hear inside yourself as well as outside.” Recently, a young writer I admire and your name-twin – Lauren Fuge – has written a piece about how we struggle to understand the changing time we’re in: “Balanced on the rim of deep time, I squint into the vast chasm of Earth’s past and for an instance I can focus all the way down. Imagine a sheet of toilet paper is 100 years. If there are 200 sheets in a roll, a single roll represents 20,000 years. A hundred of those and you’ve jumped back to when our genus Homo split off from our ancestors… Deep time may seem to offer a dangerously false comfort – that our behaviour doesn’t matter. But perhaps instead we could use it to recognise that what we are now urgently trying to save is not the planet. It is ourselves.”
So, most of all I love the things I’ve contributed to sending into the world – and the things I’m sending next.
What does being a Managing Editor of a Science magazine entail on an average day?
Grace, Moranbah SHS
Hello Grace – and what a trick question! One of the great pleasures of being a magazine editor is the chance to step into the world of people who are working on cool stuff that is a long way removed from what I do. Every day my job is to find interesting people doing amazing things and finding a way to tell people about it. Sometimes this can be frightening – I’m talking to people who are experts in a field that I am (a lot) less expert in. I have to care about getting it right, because if I get it wrong, then people will be bored, or take away an opinion that’s wrong based on what I’ve made. So it’s a strange job, but mostly what I do is read a lot and talk to really smart and interesting people. I work with designers to make the words look exciting enough for people to read them to the end. I think about fonts, and headlines and how to make the big quote on the page so interesting that you’ll stop riffling through the magazine and read the words. And I get to talk to people about what they do and choose what I think is the coolest, most interesting science that is happening right here, right now. In practice, I do a lot of fact-checking and chasing writers whose dog ate their homework …and hunting perfect images …and making sure the page numbers are right …and arguing about colours and and and … it’s like building a mini-world over and over again. Best. Job. Ever.
Where do you believe the future of science is heading and what potential is there?
Grace, Kirwan SHS, Townsville
Hi Grace. Not a small question, the future of science. Imagine a world without it. A world where medicine is based on stuff your friends tell you helps – jellybeans for asthma anyone? I like travelling, so cars; also phones and computers – all science. Houses that don’t fall over when the big bad wolf huffs and puffs: science. Food that doesn’t make me sick: research, data and regulations based on science. Hot showers: heaps of science – fluid dynamics, engineering, electricity, chemistry. More entertainingly: how to solve the next problem (any next problem): science. Ladders to the moon? Renewable energy? Faster computing? Flying cars? Climate solutions? In 2020, 763 new species were discovered in Australia. That’s more than two a day! There were geckos, fish, tonnes of insects, fungi … all of that excites me a lot. In rural Victoria there’s currently an experiment being built that hopes to prove the existence of dark matter. Plus there’s clean hydrogen power; sustainable materials for our future; low-carbon technologies – the potential to save the world.
How do you convert ‘science speak’ into ‘people speak’ so it means something to everyone?
STEM Girl Power
I think all science stories are human stories. All groups of people who work or spend time together use a lot of shorthand to communicate. In magazines, for example, we talk about heds (headlines); standfirsts (the sub line we use to explain the story) golasts (the bit after a story’s finished where you might see an author biography or a suggested other story), LHP (left hand page) RHP (…), so lots of “workspeak”. Scientists do that too – but they can also tell stories that are quite literally mind-stretching. A physicist I’ve worked with is using Facebook data methods to see if it can help explain the fundamental and mysterious particles that atoms are made from. When he writes a science paper it’s number dense, but when he talks to me, or writes for our readers, he explains it in a different way that I hope is entertaining. I think similes and comparisons help – Bill Bryson’s science books are a fantastic example of that style in action. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a lot of scientists, and in my experience, they’re a bunch of curious people solving interesting puzzles in interesting places. I think when I was at school, I thought they were a different breed of person – glasses, white coats, furrowed brows. But now I realise they’re having a life that looks a lot like a fun puzzle adventure game. Across Australia – and the world – right now, STEM-educated people are travelling around looking at things in their field of expertise and wondering: why does this work like this? How could it work better? What if it worked differently? I hope we can all relate to that excitement, and listen to them explain why it matters.
Journalism is persuasive – how to you balance facts with what’s interesting and engaging to tell hard truths?
STEM Girl Power
I might sound strange, but I think facts are interesting. Every time you breathe in, at least one atom comes from Julius Caesar’s dying breath. More than two new species a day were discovered and named in Australia last year. In science journalism, the facts are what’s interesting and engaging, along with the stories of the people who are working on them. One of our journalists recently looked at the ingredients of three COVID vaccines and explained what’s actually in them and what else they’re in (preservatives used in cupcakes, water, table salt are just a couple of examples). It’s a page-turner! I’m also an optimist. I think if we give people the facts of what’s happening (not just an opinion on whether they’re good or bad), then people get to make their own decisions. It’s not my job to persuade readers. It’s my job to give them the information they need to make up their own minds.
Food is a theme for this year’s National Science Week – how can science help the future of food?
STEM Girl Power
I’d say, in all the ways! Scientists can help work out how to make more of it and to make it more nutritious. They can also help find information about how to produce it in ways that are sustainable for future production and for the planet. They can be part of how we find the solution to distributing it more equitably around the world. Hard to believe, but they might even invent something more delicious than a doughnut (baking: yeast plus water plus heat is amazing science in action, I reckon).
If you’re interested in what’s awesome in science, chances are you’re already a subscriber to Australia’s only science magazine, Cosmos. This is one very cool publication, one which caters to pretty much anyone interested in science. Even if think you’re not interested, you can’t help but be reeled in by the array of articles told in such a beautifully simple, engaging, and connective way. Younger people can enjoy the fun and easy-to-understand graphics and the entertaining but informative stories on everything from the Mars rovers to the science of fireworks. History buffs can gain insight into the deep stories behind the latest discoveries in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Whether it be nature, genetics, health, technology, people – or pretty much anything else which could create a brighter Earthly future – you’ll find it.
Telling the amazing science behind creating the best possible future sounds like a dream job. Well, this is your chance to find out, as we hear from Editor Gail MacCallum, who puts the magazine together each issue.
Whether she is working with writers on stories about business, politics, the environment, or the latest breaking science, Gail’s aim is to engage audiences with entertaining and rigorous journalism across a broad spectrum of subjects and ideas. It makes sense that one would need a lot of random knowledge and a huge variety of experiences (teamed with a desire to change the world for the better) to lead this kind of publication. For Gail, it has certainly been a wild ride getting here. Along the way, she’s been a book and magazine editor, writer, sometimes photographer, avid traveller, adventurer, and all-around outdoor spirit. And she wants to save the world – from anti-science nonsense, political charlatans, and the stuff in packets that pretends to be food.