Adam Mann Interviews Adam Mann
By Adam Mann
My name isn’t particularly common. But I’ve noticed for years that when I Google it with “Oakland,” another Adam Mann comes up in the results. The idea for this story probably started several months ago, when a woman from the Wall Street Journal emailed me, asking if I wanted to be on their podcast. I had no idea what she was talking about. So I did a search and found that the other Adam Mann is an astronomy journalist who has written for Wired, Nature, and a bunch of other publications.
I figured it would make for an odd interview, so I went to his website, adamspacemann.com, and sent him an email. It was intended to sound a little bizarre: “This is probably pretty strange to get an email from me,” I wrote, “but I also have your name, and I also live in the Bay Area.” Rather than sign off with my standard, bland “Best,” I ended, “Also, Adam Mann.” He responded, agreeing it was indeed unusual, and we arranged to meet at Farley’s East, a coffee shop in Oakland.
This is kind of strange.
I was on the phone with my mom when I was driving over here, and I was like, ‘I’m meeting this guy, his name’s Adam Mann, he’s a journalist, he lives in Oakland.’ She was like, “What?”
It sounds like the plot of a Philip K. Dick novel.
I knew there was another Adam Mann who lives in the Bay Area, in Oakland. I’d seen that person’s name come up on Google. I was looking at your picture and we even look a little similar.
(Pointing to his ear) I used to have that same piercing.
I realized pretty late in life that Adam Mann is a literary name.
In what way?
In the Bible, Adam is obviously the first man …
…and it means “man.” My parents are Israeli, my first language was Hebrew. So I always knew that growing up — it’s just like having the same name twice. But I don’t think it was intentional on their part. My dad’s parents’ last name was not Mann originally, it was Mandelovich. They changed it after they moved from Poland to Israel.
My grandfather’s name wasn’t even close to Mann. He changed his last name to Mann because he was ‘running from the law,’ from what my dad says. So mine shouldn’t be my last name either.
Just yesterday, my roommate and my husband and I were talking about my parents’ nickname for me, “Dudi,” which is a nickname for “David” in Hebrew, because they were going to call me David. And I would have been the same — David is the same as Adam. They’re functionally equivalent names in my mind. But if I would have been, I don’t know, “Ted” or something like that … that feels like I would have been a different person.
Just that very small change would have changed the whole outcome of your life?
I was reading about the possibilities of some physics theories — what infinity could mean, which is that anything that occurs will repeat exactly, or with just a slight alteration. That was something I had never thought about before.
Especially when you do something dangerous. I think that’s probably when I think the most about that. Like, in some other universe I died doing a thing. This time I’m fine, but somewhere else …
This reminds me of the more eccentric theories of physics, like multiverses and parallel universes. Do those ideas cross your mind very often, or do they influence the way you see things at all?
Huh, that’s a good question. There are a lot of physicists who talk about the multiverse, and it is a legitimate scientific theory and method of inquiry. And there are a lot of other physicists who say that it’s all bullshit, that it’s not actual science because it’s an unanswerable question. We have no physical evidence or way of knowing. There’s no signal we know of that could come from another universe. I tend to side with the second group more: it’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know that it’s science, necessarily. That being said, I don’t know that I base my life solely on what science says. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about and it’s totally possible.
You write about astronomy. What do you think of astrology?
It’s not something I believe in, but it is interesting. My birthday is in September, I’m a Libra. I feel very much like a Libra.
I’m also a Libra, which I have to look up every time to remember when that is when people ask me.
I like systems, and astrology and those weird alchemical magical systems can get really interesting, just to know about them and know how people have constructed all these different ideas that don’t all agree with one another. Do I think that the stars influence what we do on a day-to-day basis? No, I don’t really think so. But I believe in the Myers-Briggs test, which many people consider astrological.
People get upset if you say you don’t believe in those things. I don’t believe in Myers-Briggs. I’ve never found much usefulness in it.
That’s what it is, it’s what you find use in. And I think a lot of people find use in astrology and it gives them structure and meaning. And so when you say to them that you don’t believe it, they kind of balk and go, “Well how is that possible? I have all this evidence.” Because they have a lot of personal investment. And that’s kind of what we all do.
You’ve written about space travel and the toll it takes on humans who go on these missions. What would you think if you were offered the chance to go to space?
Never. Not in a million years. They’d have to pay me a lot of money to do it. When I have stress dreams, they’re because I’m being sent into space, usually. Which happened at some point while I was at Wired, all of a sudden my stress dreams became about going into space, and that was when I realized I wouldn’t do it if offered the opportunity.
What is it about space that scares you?
Everything. Being strapped to a rocket, which is a giant firecracker, essentially. You’re in a tin can separated from very sudden death at any moment. I think one of the things that doesn’t get reported and doesn’t get talked about is that there is always a low-level anxiety for astronauts and people in space. Part of that is because it’s part of their job — they’re constantly working and they’re very high-functioning, type-A people — but they report a lot of problems sleeping, they report irritation and all kinds of things, and a lot of it is that somewhere in the back of your mind, your monkey brain knows …
… you’re not supposed to be out here.
Right. I think that also, just in general, people are like, “Aw man, space! It’s this wonderful beautiful place and we’ve got to go and it’s going to change humanity.” And yes, it will. But they discount the fact that there will also be a lot of terrible things that happen and it’ll take a big toll. That’s where I come from in what I try to write about space. I still think it’s awesome, but things are not going to be better anywhere else. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote this trilogy called “The Mars Trilogy” where they start to terraform mars and make it more Earth-like. There is a faction of people who say that we shouldn’t be doing this, that we need to love Mars as it exists currently and learn to deal with it that way. And in the end, the people who terraform win. When I was younger, I was like, “Yeah, sure, that’s what’s supposed to happen.” When I think about terraforming now, I think, ‘Should we do that?’
What are the downsides of terraforming?
It’s a question of whether we have the right to do with another planet whatever we want to do. Does the planet have the right to exist untouched without human interference?
Even if it doesn’t have sentient beings?
Even if it doesn’t have any lifeforms whatsoever, even if it’s just a lifeless hunk of rock. It’s who gets to decide the criteria of good or better, and we’re life, so we think that living things are better than nonliving things. I don’t know if I would take it that far — I still think that if we had to and if we need another home, then sure, terraform the planet and make it liveable. But can we terraform a planet? We think it’s easy, but when we start doing it we realize it’s actually insanely difficult. We in the modern day are very naive about these things.
This has more to do with futurism, but do you worry about human obsolescence in your lifetime?
This fear of robots that manifests in our cinema, in books and sci-fi, it’s saying more about our psychology that we worry about robots replacing us than it does about something we actually need to worry about. It tells you about what our fears are, that we’re somehow not good enough, that something can come along that’s better than us. “Better” is a relative thing, and we also decide what is better. Computers can now beat us in chess and Go. But we’re the ones who decided that chess and Go are the things that smart things do. Is that an objective criteria for intelligence? It’s hard to say.
I think there’s an interesting parallel with that — the way we create gods as sort of an origin story for ourselves. But then I think that leads into the fear of technology: since we’ve created these things, we’re afraid, as modern society has effaced god in some ways, that the technology we’ve created will efface us.
But we still think of technology as godlike as well, and there are people in the old religious stories who fear god. When you think about astrology and gods and things about the sky, and stories people have told for thousands of years, they’re all just versions of us but up there doing slightly different things. And we tweak it a little here and there, but it says more about our psychology. I don’t think we need to fear technology that much.
Do you know where things go or what happens to things when they fall into a black hole?
They get crushed to an infinitely dense point. That’s the best answer we have right now. But an infinitely dense point doesn’t make sense physically, so nobody really knows. Black holes are really, really weird. They can evaporate. They send off this thing called Hawking radiation that Stephen Hawking discovered, where they release energy and it gets carried away. And very slowly over time, because energy is mass, their mass goes down and they evaporate and disappear.
I didn’t even know they evaporated.
I once asked an astronomy professor, when I was studying astrophysics, that if he could get his hands on a black hole, what would be the one experiment he would like to do? He said if he could design one experiment, it would be to know what happens at that moment when it loses enough mass to stop being a black hole. Since it was infinitely dense, does all that stuff now come back out, whatever hasn’t evaporated away? And what does that look like? Does it look like what it looked like when it fell in? Has it been transformed somehow into some other form of matter?
The Higgs boson [the so-called “God particle,” the existence of which was confirmed using the Large Hadron Collider] was officially discovered in 2011. In 2017, do you think we’re closer to having any kind of unified theory of physics?
I think we’re further away. Physicists have been talking about “the theory of everything” for a really long time, and my bias is I think it’s a wild goose chase, because I don’t think there’s one description of reality where you’d be able to write down an equation and be like, “Okay, we’ve got it all.” But they built up this very careful model over decades called The Standard Model, and that’s the thing that governs all the particles and forces that we know about. It’s incredibly successful and they can test it out, and the equations and the experiments agree with each other perfectly. But they also know it’s wrong, because there are things it doesn’t explain — we don’t understand how gravity works, neutrinos don’t make sense and shouldn’t have mass according to the theory … they clearly don’t fit in with that model. The Higgs was the last thing — the model said it should be there. And when they discovered it, it was a big deal. But it looked too much like what the model predicted.
You wrote about that — that it didn’t give them anything to go on.
Exactly. They were looking for direction. Nothing about the Higgs was different or weird in any way, so I think physicists — they don’t really say it, but they are are in a bit of a crisis in terms of the current theories, which they know to be incomplete, but there’s no good direction on where to go next.
It sounds sort of like they found a key to unlock a room, and they entered the room …
… and it’s empty. I don’t know what it is that physics needs right now. I think they are in sort of an unsaid crisis with the Higgs boson, and you have a lot of these wings of physicists who are like, “Oh, the multiverse,” or, “Oh, string theory,” but none of those have actually panned out in any way. We still can’t test them, we still don’t have any evidence for them.
I read somewhere in a blurb that you’re working on a sci-fi novel?
Yeah, I’m writing a book. It’s about aliens and going to another planet, and learning that the aliens are more or less impossible to understand. It’s about science and knowledge, and my overarching idea behind it is to create a problem that should be able to be solved by science, but can’t for some reason. Learning to understand another species is essentially a problem that science should be able to tackle, but I don’t know that we can actually do it.
Why did you decide to become a journalist?
I never thought about it, actually. I thought I was going to be a scientist … and then I did some science. It requires a very particular mindset and constitution to be a scientist. You have to be willing to study some very, very tiny aspect of reality for a very, very long time before you can do what it is that you’re more passionate about. I worked at the Berkeley labs for about a year and I hated it, and then I spent a few years just being like, “What am I going to do with my life?” I went traveling in New Zealand right after college and I kept a blog for my friends and my family, and a lot of people said the writing was very good. But it was my stepmom who found this program at University of California, Santa Cruz that takes people with a science background and teaches them how to be science writers. So I used my blog posts as my writing sample, because I hadn’t written any journalism beyond that. It was a great decision, I can’t believe I haven’t been doing this from the beginning.
You seem to write a little differently for different publications. I noticed you wrote something for NBC, but your stuff for Medium is more dense and for a more learned audience. How do you tailor your writing?
You have a lot of help. I’m writing right now for Nature, a scientific publication that’s going to be for a scientific audience. I’ve written for them before, and they have a very particular voice. And it’s really just the editing process that gets rid of your voice and turns it into their voice. Some of the ways you wanted to write it slips through, but it slowly gets transformed into this other thing.
It seems like journalism school pushed you in the right direction. Do you know a lot of people who didn’t go to journalism school who are in the industry?
Yes. I know science writers, mostly — some of them went to programs, some of them did not. Some of them were journalists in some other capacity before and they fell into science writing. A friend of mine did the journalism program at Laney College and now he works for a Japanese newspaper in New York. He’s making it, and he seems to be enjoying it as well. The thing I always tell people is that it never goes to waste, the stuff that you did [in the past]. You’re never like, “Well, that was a total waste of ten years and I didn’t learn anything or get anything out of that.” You will use certain skills that you learned in one way or another.
What strikes me is how hard it is to get ahold of people. I don’t know why that was such a revelation to me.
A lot of what you do as a journalist is ask favors from people. You’re asking favors of their time, and they have no reason to give it to you.
It’s fascinating that anyone wants to talk to you, really. It’s just the compulsion for people to want to talk about themselves.
Everybody has a lot of thoughts about what it is they do, and sometimes they just want to tell someone who’s interested.
At the top – Left: Adam Mann, science writer for Wired, Nature, Medium and Science. Photo: Khoa Bui; Right: Adam Mann, writer for The BCC Voice. Photo: Cheri Hudnut