Brain Reel #17

Coming out of the book-writing hole, space-based romanticism, WHO AM I?!

Hello there you lovely lot.

It has been a *while* since the last Brain Reel - the simple answer as to why is that I’ve been finishing writing my book, which I am extremely chuffed to say I submitted to my publisher on Thursday!

It turns out penning 102,906 words is quite an overwhelming task that requires 1000% of your brain, who knew?

Anyway, I’m psyched to be back, and I hope you lot are psyched about something or another that is on your plate right now too..!


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

So this weekend is the 50-year anniversary of the moon landing, and those famous steps on its dusty surface. And unless you’re living in an entirely different echo chamber to me, I’m assuming you’ve seen the huge amount of coverage, celebration and conspiracy-theory-debunking (seriously, dudes, stop…it exacerbates it. The lovely Jonathan O’Callaghan wrote a nice piece on this, brilliant.)

Now, of course, it’s been cracking to see some of the more hidden figures and stories be told over the past few weeks, and of course there’s merit in celebrating insanely hard technological achievements…but I can’t help feeling that the romanticism we have about space is, well, a bit much.

Don’t get me wrong - I think space is awe-inspiring, worthy of our time and money, and a totally valid thing to get super excited about. But I also think there’s a tendency to shake off problematic behaviour that absolutely happens in the now rapidly growing business of space because: ‘but it’s SPACE!!!’

Think about Musk’s satellites interfering with astronomy, and worse, contributing the sheer number of satellites and space junk we have orbiting our planet at high speed. Think about the recent comments from Bezos about investing his billions in space because we have ruined our own planet. Think about the fact that private investment is flowing into a field lacking in regulation, and that one of the emerging countries funnelling money and effort into plucky entrepreneurs is one known for helping the rich avoid paying tax and hiding assets: Luxembourg. Think about the fact that nothing on the same scale of the Apollo missions has been invested in by governments since, because there’s been no cold war to win and many other ways of flouting genitalia proportions geopolitically.

Space is amazing, and we absolutely should celebrate the awesome feats performed by the incredible swathes of people involved in the Apollo missions. But we must also remove our rose-tinted glasses, and remember that space is just like any other industry - with its glorious visions and its problematic flaws.


📖 Book Reel 📖

So the book was submitted to the publisher on Thursday, and everyone is asking ‘what’s the next step?’

In short - I’m actually not entirely sure (one thing I’m learning about the book publishing industry is that it’s very vague…) I’ll be getting edits through, of course, but I’ve no idea if it’ll be entire chapter changes, or more simply commas and spelling, and I’ve no idea when I’ll receive them - which makes for quite erratic freelance work planning, to say the least..!

In the meantime, I’m super excited to have found an awesome cartoonist/illustrator (Rebecca Hendin - if you’re not already a fan, get following) who is going to create the chapter openers, and I literally cannot wait to see how she interprets the message of each of the 9 chapters..! We’re kicking things off next week 😬

I’m waiting for the first options for the book cover coming back from the publisher. I wasn’t really a part of the briefing process (I’ve learnt that this is normal, for the author to not be given a part in speaking to, briefing or engaging at all whatsoever with the designer in charge with giving their work the face literally everyone will judge it on…) - but I’m hoping with such a visual title, that whoever the wonderful designer is they’ll come up with something beaut!

Speaking of title - it changed more times than I care to relive haha, but it is now confirmed…

‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’

I’m super happy with it, and it gave me an excuse to start the introduction with some history of magic, which I’m well chuffed with. I always wanted to have a really weird first sentence, and - unless it gets vetoed by the editors - I’m hoping it will take folk by surprise somewhat 🙃

I’m also now in ‘how do I start thinking about marketing this book’-mode, and so I’m now trying to build myself a little team of social media / publicity / events / bookish people around me to try and do this thing (that - actually - I’m pretty proud of?) justice. Chatted to this *incredible* fellow freelance gal this morning who is a bloody delight, so I’m feeling optimistic about finding glorious folk to work with over the next year or so. (I’m still in the early stages here, so if you want to be involved somewhat…hit reply y’know)


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

Those of you who have been reading this newsletter for a wee while will know that I spend in inordinate amount of time trying to work out wtf my 'WrItEr’S iDeNtItY’ is.

Writing this book, and realising it’s not really a popular science, or a tech book, but something that weaves politics and history and economics and philosophy into those worlds, has given me some confidence that I can write outside the fields I’m deemed more expert in.

It’s not that I want to stop writing about science and tech, because I don’t (editors reading: please keep letting me write for you!) - but the book has somehow given me the permission, even just within my own head, to start pitching and writing and thinking and engaging beyond the ‘deep tech startups in Europe’ ‘beat’ I’ve been focused on over the last year.

But this entirely basic revelation of sorts also brings with it a bit of a pernickety question I sometimes feel the need to find an answer to: do I want to be a writer-writer (someone who is known for writing, and who writes about whatever takes their fancy to an extent), or someone who knows stuff about a particular niche, who happens to write about it? There’s benefits to the latter - it’s how I get the bulk of my speaking gigs and consulting jobs, and I love that work. But I’m being drawn to weird stories about libraries and linguistics and law, and I worry that after all this time trying to cement myself as some kind of ‘expert’, I’ll come across as…well…confusing. And less of an expert.

I’m sure anyone reading this who freelances, or who has more than one kind of ‘job’ going at once, will know what I mean when I say how frustrating it can be when someone says (in a totally well-meaning manner, usually): ‘so, what is it that you *actually* do?’ It’s frustrating, when you feel you don’t really owe anyone an answer, but at the same time, you need to market yourself SOMEhow, and a confusing persona doesn’t make for a front-of-mind hire. And somehow people don’t seem to understand that you can be bloody brilliant at more than one thing (if I do say so myself), so it feels devaluing somewhat.

Right now, I’m feeling all pumped up about my libraries, linguistics and law stories, and I’ve got my ‘THE WORLD IS MY OYSTER’ hat on most days right now (the joys of finishing an 8-month writing project I guess?), but I do also have a little nagging worry that those in the ‘deep tech startups in Europe’ space will see me as less of a worthy person to work with, speak to, or be interviewed by when those (hopefully) come out.

Let’s be honest though: the thrill of proving people wrong, or taking people by surprise, has always been a tonic of choice for me, so maybe making it slightly harder for myself in this respect is some kind of sub-conscious decision to allow for more opportunities for those glorious shots of validation.

I guess there’s only one way to find out…


📌 Tip Reel 📌

I’ve been listening to The Patient Assassin on Audible and my god is this book an incredible read (/listen). It’s all about Udham Singh, who was a Punjab revolutionary and freedom fighter who assassinated Michael O' Dwyer in 1940, the former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab in India, as revenge for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His story is fascinating in and of itself, but the book is also totally opened my eyes to the British colonial era in India. Highly recommend.

Can’t get enough of this video of Regina Spektor playing Samson with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Centre. (Regina Spektor is my absolute favourite)

Also can’t get enough of this video of Lizzo doing acoustic versions of ‘Cuz I Love You’ (near the start) and ‘Juice’ (at the end). The interview is beaut too, but my god her voice is just sublime, even more so acoustically.

There’s been a few incredible investigative video journalism efforts recently reporting on the horrific disappearance of the Uighur community in China. Here’s VICE, Vox and the BBC. Watch them all, spread the word.

Fascinating podcast episode interviewing a dude who got addicted to robbing banks, from Love+Radio.


➡️ Next Reel ➡️


✍️ Work Reel ✍️


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Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, currently writing a book about hype and idealism in science and tech, is Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt, and loves a bit of public speaking.