Writer, editor, photographer

I am a writer, an erstwhile scientist, and a serious amateur photographer with an unquenchable interest in music, audio, and--broadly--the intersection of reason and subjectivity. Before this latest professional phase I was an editor (14 years with Science magazine; I still take on occasional freelance editing gigs), and my first career was as a physicist studying fundamental properties of materials. My education includes a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College--one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the country--and Ph.D. and master's degrees in physics from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

I was born in a small Alabama town, but I didn't stay there long. Before I started school, my parents moved to a small city in Florida, on the state's east coast. It was there that I became, years later, the valedictorian of my high school class, the top student in a class of about 500 students. My classmates voted me Most Likely to Succeed. I was the first-chair trumpet player in the marching band and wind ensemble (think orchestra except that in Florida in those days there were no strings) from my sophomore year onward. I was an officer in the band and became president of two academic honor societies, including one I never joined.  Early employment experiences included pushing drugs (through the halls of a hospital) and writing software for a nuclear power plant (FPL's St. Lucie I and II).

After high school, I went straight to Swarthmore, starting out as a double major in Engineering and English Literature. Engineering bored me and I dropped it for Physics. I continued on in English almost to the end, with an emphasis on theater. I was never an actor; my interest was in scriptwriting, direction, production, and theories of performance. I wanted to know how dramatic effects were achieved.

After college, I went back to the nuclear plant for a while, programming IBM microcomputers in the Budget Department, but I didn't stay there long: Love drug(ged) me to North Carolina, where my girlfriend was living, and where I got my first job as a newspaper reporter. It was at a typical, formerly great, progressive small-southern-town newspaper (think Mayberry). I was hired to cover sports, but I never covered that beat; instead I became the paper's news writer and staff photographer, covering church socials, public works issues (is the wastewater treatment plant falling into the Dan River?) and small-town corruption (did the mayor use his influence to get his friend a permit to build a go-cart race track?). This was also my first serious exposure to photography, which became a lifelong interest: I took black-and-white photos of sunsets, local celebrities, council meetings, and oddly shaped and oversized vegetables. Many of my photographs ended up on the newspaper's front page. I wrote a weekly column about whatever was on my mind--my brother's marriage, New Jersey bowlers, snakes in laundromats, pinhead bosses (to the amusement of my editor), Florida road trips, and so on. I applied to graduate school in physics, and it turned out to pay better than the journalism gig--plus, Chapel Hill sounded fun. So I put my writing career on hold and endeavored to become a scientist.

My early work in physics was, in a way, a continuation of my interest in photography: I studied point defects--molecular-scale imperfections with real-world consequences--in silver halides, the materials at the core of most film photography. (Considering the timing, this is surely part of the reason I didn't end up with a research career: digital photography was already ascending.) My Ph.D. work involved detecting correlated gamma-ray emissions from radiotracers, an approach that turned atomic nuclei into little sensors detecting interactions between those radiotracer impurities and other defects. After the Ph.D., I became a postdoc and then took on the title of Research Professor. And then I quit.

During my scientific career, which lasted about 10 years, I wrote or collaborated on some 20 peer-reviewed articles, all published in top-tier journals. I also co-edited a book, Accelerator-Based Atomic Physics Techniques and Applications.

Why did I quit? I already mentioned that I moved to NC for love. I met her at Swarthmore when I was a sophomore and she (Rachel) was a precocious freshman, 16 years old. I stayed and graduated, but she left Swarthmore soon after. In the following years, we were often apart, yet we stayed together. As I pursued my studies, she was, by night, a cocktail waitress and by day a salesperson of china and clothing. She wrecked her Alfa Romeo Spider in North Carolina. had no money to get it fixed, so she stayed there and pursued degrees in chemistry and dance. During this time I moved to North Carolina and took that newspaper job I mentioned, and then started graduate school. She earned her bachelor's degree and started graduate school herself, also at UNC. In 1991 we were married. When I finished my Ph.D. a year later, Rachel still had a few years to go on hers. When she finished, we both were on the academic job market, and she got the first offer. I quit physics and followed Rachel to Maine. Not much work for physicists up there, I figured, but I can always return to writing--which is what I did.

We moved in to a passive-solar house in a beautiful wooded valley, and for a while I became a house-husband, doing manly things like cutting, splitting, and hauling firewood and putting in new floors. We had a child and (after the breastfeeding phase) I became the primary parent. In my spare time, I wrote. While Rachel was on sabbatical at Princeton University, I founded The Post-Careerist, an online magazine that aimed to refocus notions of work and leisure, drawing on the ideas of the Epicurians, Henry David Thoreau, and Scott and Helen Nearing, among others. The Post-Careerist published excellent writing by prominent writers and generated an audience that was loyal, diverse, and smart. I also joined, as science editor, the pioneering online publication BlueEar.com, founded by journalist Ethan Casey, and, at BlueEar, started what may have been the world's first science blog. (It was 1999.) Around this time I got interested in perfectionist audio and started writing about that.

Having established my post-careerist bona-fides, I returned to the 9-5, sort of; for a father, the lure of a steady income can be strong. I took a job with Science magazine's news department--Science is, or was, the best science magazine on the planet--with a special focus on careers. Not only had this "post-careerist"--me--become a classic careerist; he (I) had the audacity to advise others about their careers.

2015 was, for me, a big year. For a couple of years I'd been caring for my mother, who had Parkinson's Disease with dementia. She died in June, and my son graduated high school; the two things happened days apart. My son had already earned early admission to Columbia University. My wife had an offer for a prestigious endowed chair at Barnard College--part of Columbia. Eager for something new, and tired of pinhead bosses, in the summer of 2015 I followed my wife once more, this time to New York City. 

I hung in with a career for 14 years. I worked hard. I convinced myself I cared. But ultimately my heart wasn't in it.

I'm a New Yorker now, happy to be a part of this defiant city in the age of Trump. I spend my time working out (when my body allows it), writing freelance journalism and music and audio criticism, and personal projects, fiction and non. When time allows--and it often does--I indulge my long-time fascination with photography. 

One major gig is with Stereophile, which I've been writing for on and off now for 15 years or so. So much of my life is involved with photography and high-end audio, with technology-mediated aesthetic experience. Or, to put it a different way, I'm focused on the intersection of technology and art, of reason and subjectivity. It's a fascinating subject.

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Jim Austin,
Oct 7, 2016, 2:26 PM
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