Dr. Matt Bothwell discusses how his own research and curiosity led him to sharing what he’s learned in his new popular science book, The Invisible Universe.
Dr. Matt Bothwell is Public Astronomer at the University of Cambridge and a science communicator who gives astronomy talks and lectures on almost any area of astronomy, and makes regular media appearances (including local and national TV and radio). When he is not doing outreach, Matt is an observational astronomer, who uses a range of state-of-the-art observing facilities to study the evolution of galaxies across cosmic time. Find him on Twitter.
In this book, Matt discusses how his own research and curiosity led him to sharing what he’s learned in his new popular science book, The Invisible Universe, what activity helped him through writer’s block, and more!
Name: Matt Bothwell
Literary agent: Laurie Robertson, of Peter Fraser and Dunlop.
Book title: The Invisible Universe
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Expected release date: December 7, 2021
Genre/category: Popular science
Elevator pitch for the book: When we look at the night sky with just our eyes we are seeing only a tiny fraction of everything the universe has to offer. This book is a guide to the 99 percent of cosmic reality we can’t see—the Invisible Universe, hidden behind the familiar stars.
What prompted you to write this book?
I was a research astronomer for more than a decade, and my specialty was studying baby galaxies that lived way back in time, at the dawn of the Universe soon after the Big Bang. These baby galaxies are almost impossible to see with visible light (and for years we had no idea they existed at all!) It was only by using other wavelengths of light that we were able to finally discover this new galactic species.
As a researcher, I used to give public talks about my work, and the response was always the same: “This is so interesting—why on Earth haven’t I heard about this before?!” So much popular astronomy writing concentrates on the 1% of the Universe we can see with visible light. So I decided to write a guide to the 99% of cosmic reality that is completely invisible to us.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I had the germ of the idea bouncing around my head for a couple of years. I designed a lecture course around the idea, but it was such an interesting topic I wanted to go further and write a popular book about it.
With the start of the COVID lockdown in the U.K., and the University of Cambridge suspending all its activities, I realized it was now or never. I started discussing the book in earnest with my agent in the spring of 2020, and spent the summer and winter of the pandemic year turning the idea into a reality.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Writing this book was my first contact with the trade publishing world, so in a way the whole process was one long learning moment!
The only writing I had ever published before this book were academic papers (which are so dense and jargon-filled they make most people run a mile). It was a very lovely surprise to discover that when you publish a trade book you are assigned a small army of talented people to help guide your book into the best possible shape.
Feedback from editors, editorial assistants, copyeditors, and proof-readers all came together to make the final manuscript the best possible version of what I had written.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
In terms of the actual writing process, the main surprise was how much I enjoyed it—and how much I missed it once the manuscript was handed in. It got to the point that writing for a couple of hours because a kind of morning ritual that I really looked forward to.
In terms of the content, the biggest surprise was working out exactly how detailed a famous astronomy image really was. The first picture of a black hole was taken back in 2019 (it looks like a fuzzy orange doughnut) and I always knew that the picture needed fantastically high telescope resolution. Writing the book, I was looking for a metaphor to convey how powerful the telescope was, and I discovered that the resolution was equivalent to reading the lettering on a coin in New York using a telescope in London. Mind-blowing!
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
A sense of wonder and awe about the remarkable Universe we find ourselves living in, and excitement about the scientific journey humanity is on to understand it all.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Nothing helped me get in the mood to write more than taking walks. There’s something about walking that really helps me get into that particular meditative state of focus that makes the writing flow. Don’t know how to word something? Struggling to start a chapter? Go for a walk, without your phone, and think it through! Works for me.
Throughout this 12-week course, you will get step-by-step instruction on how to write nonfiction, read Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, and write articles, essays, or a few chapters of your book. Register for this course and discover how fun writing nonfiction can be.