Writing science fiction requires attention to science while retaining the sense of wonder and imagination that makes it fiction. In writing my new sci-fi novel Moon Rescue: Escape from the Dome, I went to a great source for advice and guidance--engineering students and their teacher at a Philadelphia public high school that nurtures young people's interest in STEM. Teacher John Kamal, with degrees in mechanical engineering and a passion for teaching young people, brought two of his students into my research process and the three of them kept me on the right track as I made stuff up about how 5,000 people might live under a giant dome on the Moon. My interview with John reveals a man who left a successful career in developing power sources for spacecraft and supply chain software to teach in one of the most financially challenged school districts in America. I was inspired and you will be, too!
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:00 Tom Kranz
Hello everyone. And welcome to the inaugural episode of Type Tune Tint, formerly the Independent Author podcast. I'm Tom Kranz.
The path of creativity is hardly ever a straight line from the idea to final execution. I think that's true for artists of all kinds--writers, musicians, sculptors, etc. And that's been my personal experience in writing novels. I always start with the germ of an idea, then I start writing. After a while, I stop walk away and then I return to what I've written and try to read it as though I were a total stranger reading it for the first time. It really helps to walk away from it for a period of time, days or a week or even longer. And then once I reread it, if it's crap, I toss it. If it's only semi crap, I keep it and work with it. It's almost never gold the first time. That's the beauty of writing on a computer. We love the fact that we can change things in an instant or in the event that what you write the first time actually works, you can enshrine it and save it. But getting it down on the screen is the important first step. You can always return to it and edit it multiple times.
My new science fiction novel, Moon Rescue: Escape from the Dome, is a case in point. I began writing it as a sequel to my first sci-fi novel, Time Travel Rescue, building on characters in that first work. But as I continued weaving the story, I realized that it needed to become something that could stand on its own. Sequels are fine, but I think to keep readers engaged, they also need to have their own identity.
So, in reading and rereading, I made adjustments to try to hang on to a first-time reader who hadn't read Time Travel Rescue, and this required telling some of the backstories. There's always a danger that the backstory becomes too bulky and boring. I think I walked the line in this case and I introduced just enough to fill in some of the blanks, but I guess you'll be the judge when you buy it and read it and hopefully leave an honest review on Amazon.
When writing science fiction, there is a certain responsibility to get the science right while still leaving plenty of room for imagination and speculation. I've always thought sci-fi should be fun. It's what engaged me as a kid with old films like Forbidden Planet, The Day of the Earth Stood Still, and then on TV with Star Trek, Lost in Space and many others. But the basics of science need to be as correct as possible because that credibility is the first building block of plausible science fiction.
And that leads me to my guest today. John Kamal joins me from my hometown Philadelphia, where he is a science teacher at the Science Leadership Academy. That's a program of the Philadelphia public school system and it gives high school students with an interest in science a curriculum to spread their wings and thrive. John and several of his students were actually the science advisors for my moon rescue novel John joins me today and John your path to becoming a public school teacher wasn't exactly linear, either. You started your career in a much different place, didn't you?
3:20 John Kamal
Yeah, I did Tom. Yeah, I fell in love with science and engineering when I was in high school and physics and then went on to study mechanical engineering, and my degrees are in mechanical. And then for the first eight or nine years of my career, I worked in this space program at GE and worked on a bunch of different NASA projects and Department of Energy projects. And I felt very fortunate to be doing the work that I was doing at a young age. And then I was an entrepreneur for 25 years. And then once that wrapped up, I became a school teacher high school science and engineering teacher.
And how old were you when you became a teacher?
I was 52.
Let me just review real quickly. So you started off in a career in a really interesting field at GE Space systems. And what exactly--speak to me, like I'm six years old--and tell me exactly what you did and what projects, what kinds of projects you worked on for GE space systems?
Yeah, sure. I was especially focused on in the time that I was there. Energy systems that would provide power and energy to all different types of spacecraft and especially around interplanetary spacecraft like Galileo and earlier, prior to me was Voyager and those kinds of spacecraft and then later was Ulysses and Cassini. Those spacecraft need special types of power sources because they're very far from the sun. And so a major focus of my efforts there were on that. I also worked on the idea of nuclear-powered satellites which today sound kind of far-fetched that we would actually live nuclear reactors in earth orbit. But at the time in the 80s, when in the middle of the SDI initiative that Reagan was sponsoring, there was a look at a whole range of different things. That's when I worked on the space station design and I felt quite lucky to have kind of lived a graced period of time, working on a bunch of different, really fabulous projects.
It must have been an incredible experience--eye-opening, enriching and look at all the knowledge that you gained doing that. Tell me about the movie The Martian and the scene there that reminds you of you.
5:46 John Kamal
Oh gosh. Yeah, I forgot that I told you that at some point. Yeah, my students are always interested in that. There's a scene in The Martian where Matt Damon is, or Matt Damon's character, faces the problem of needing to get across the Martian surface to the, essentially, the place that he would be rescued. And to pull this off, he needed to get into a rover and go a long distance. And one of the principal challenges in a place like Mars is temperature control. You know suns set and then sons rise and when that happens you can dramatically change the temperature of anything. And here on Earth, we're insulated with our atmosphere so that helps us to not have such dramatic swings but on Mars where there's very little atmosphere that it's not, it doesn't help very much there.
So he found himself freezing on his trial runs. And then he remembered oh my gosh, that's right we have an RTG--radioisotope thermal electric generator-- and that's a device that I had worked on, me and thousands of other people, that would be bolted onto the side of things like that, Voyager, Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini, those kinds of spacecraft. And his realization was, oh my gosh, that's right there. There was a, there was a spacecraft that had made it to the Martian soil and had an RTG and it would still be radiating heat. And he went and dug that thing up and my massive claim to fame, if I even have one would be that I have a patent and I hold it with others on a device that would allow and RTG to actually work on Mars. So, the way I, you know, sell it to my kids, and, of course, it's always it's a lot of performance when you're a teacher, you know, is a is oh yeah, I saved Matt Damon's life. That's my claim to fame.
I love that. See, you did. That's amazing. It's, that's cool.
So whether or not I get any royalties or anything, of course--
--and you get nothing.
Exactly. I get nothing.
So you did that for a while and then you and some partners started a software company and whenever anybody asked me what, what kind of software this was that you guys developed and then marketed and supported, my little brain basically said something really dumb like, well, it's a piece of software that will run your oil refinery. Now, tell me really what it did.
Well, it's in the category of supply chain planning and optimization. In very large, production environments, oil refining is one, especially plastics manufacturing are well, today we do, the company still does the manufacturing and design and scheduling and planning for the production of little cherry tomatoes that you get the store that come in little plastic containers? Yeah. Well, we're the kings of that, you know, and Ibuprofen, and a wide range of things. And when you make products like that with tens of thousands of different products that you're making and tens of thousands of rail cars moving that stuff around, you find that math is your good friend.
And so we kind of specialized in understanding the math that would go behind planning and scheduling those kinds of complex operations and then optimizing off it and for a lot of the kinds of things.
So supply chain, basically, we're talking about, right?
Exactly, the optimization of supply chain.
So what they could have maybe could have used your software to prevent this crap that's going on on the west coast with the other ships sitting out there.
Absolutely. And our software actually, in times like this, where they're supply chain disruptions, the company still does, you know, one-off analysis to help our clients with problems. Like they're having right now and say right. How do I get myself out of this pickle? I remember when hurricane Katrina came through and devastated the Gulf Coast, we were staying up nights trying to help our clients, you know, around the problems that they were having.
So and then you guys sold the company and then you moved on, and then you became a public school teacher in one of the most troubled, financially strapped school districts in America, the Philadelphia School District. Did you always want to be a teacher? Or did you just wake up one day and said I know how to share this with kids, or what was what led you to do this?
10:10 John Kamal
I've often found myself always motivated and interested in youth education and mentoring. So, I was involved in all different types of mentoring projects and being on school boards and that kind of thing. And I just gravitated towards that. And if there's ever a party I would, and they had teen kids, I would find myself ending up going and talking with them and not wanting to be with the adults, which says something like, you know, well, you really enjoyed the energy of young people, which is really always been true and into this day.
And so, you said, did I wake up one morning? I actually went to bed one night, and I was just thinking, well, what am I gonna do it? I don't want to retire. I mean, you know, I'm still young and I still have a fair amount of piss and vinegar and I'm ready to keep going here. And it suddenly hit me, I bet you, I'd like to teach physics. I bet you that would be, engineering, and in a high school setting and that would be terrific. And once that caught me, I just couldn't let it go. Every night. I would lay in bed thinking of what I would do next and how I would structure my room, what I would say to the kids. And I couldn't let that go. So there it is.
11:25 Tom Kranz
Well, God knows, the kids need, you know, as many people as many teachers like you as they can possibly get, not only in Philadelphia but everywhere. Tell me a little bit about your students. Where do they come from? These are kids, as I describe them really broadly, who kind of have a special interest in science. Is that, is that accurate? And how do they end up in your class? And then at the SLA.
Yeah, of many, many students do have an interest in science, but our school isn't overly sciencey in that way although it's in our name. We actually have incredibly strong departments in English and languages and humanities. And we have a higher than average percentage of kids to go into STEM but not a freakishly high number. These are kids from every single zip code in the city, they are generally poor kids. They come from poor families. They showed an aptitude at their elementary middle schools for doing well at school and being serious about school and also being interesting and wanting to learn. The key is that they've demonstrated interest in being lifelong learners and we interview every kid that applies.
And unfortunately, we can only accept a small fraction of those kids because there's a great need and you know this is the poorest school district for any large city in the country. And there's a desperate need for good education there and that is only a handful of schools like this. So we, unfortunately, can only accept a certain number of students. And then once they're in the school, the unique model that we have, and we're kind of like a national model school is, is that we do inquiry-based and project-based learning. So a, you know, young person, the classic example that I always give is, how do they learn about, how do they learn physics and in a typical school--and by the way, every student takes physics in our school, not because we're a sciencey school but because we just believe that the core ideas of what's happening in physics is, is fundamental for every person. So, in a normal school, you go in and somebody says okay, you know, the teacher would stand up in front of the class and lecture at the whiteboard and say, okay, here's the equation for the pendulum and you would get the equation for the pendulum. Then, here's a sheet. Now, solve all these problems that use the equation for the pendulum. And that sounds perfect. But then if you quiz a kid, you know, six months later and you say tell us about pendulums, they have no idea what a pendulum is or how it behaves. And for us, we instead start on their first day and we have a set of pendulums hanging from the ceiling. And we say, your job is to play with these pendulums and derive the equation of a pendulum. And that takes a week, whereas normally a pendulum only takes an hour to have your lesson and give them a sheet but because they go way more deeply into this and slower. And they do it more holistically. We are teaching them how to do science. Remember, science is a practice. It's not a body of knowledge. It's a, it's a way of learning the reality of the universe. And we teach them how to go about doing that through projects.
14:30 Tom Kranz
So they not only learn it but they retain it.
And they do. And this type of education is been shown to have, you know, fundamentally changed the way people think and their outlooks on the world. And especially right now, the need for people to understand the importance of rational thought and reality and the way that the world actually works has never been greater.
14:55 (PROMO FOR TIME TRAVEL RESCUE)
15:54 Tom Kranz
When I approached you and said, you know, you got some smart kids in your class, I could really use some guidance on this. You approached a couple students. Specifically, these are kids who had an interest in aerospace and space issues, or did you just kind of throw it out there and say anybody have any ideas for this author who you have no idea who he is and you know, how to do that? And what was their reaction?
Well, yeah, I actually did approach these two students. I just happened to have two seniors that are very, very interested and motivated in all things science--Max Gilbert and Guy Bayan--and they've demonstrated a very deep and abiding interest in all things space and I knew that they would be a really good fit for this. They're deep thinkers and motivated around these subjects. So I asked them both and they jumped at the opportunity.
Well, you know the good thing about talking to teenagers, I guess and emailing to teenagers is they are pretty straightforward in their answers. You know, there's not a lot of couching and there's not a lot of extraneous bullshit in the language that they use, you know. They just basically, here's the question and here's the answer and that was actually really helpful to me. You know, when I write science fiction, I have to write on a level that I and people like me understand, which is basically, at least, I guess, high school level, not too far above that. And I found that when I was researching beyond what your students and what you provided me, I went on to the internet and, of course, read Popular Science and Science Magazine and Space and all these magazines. And, you know, the articles always start out in English and by the time I'm 10 minutes into it, it's like I want to kill myself. I just don't get it. And so I have to kind of go back to square one. But what was helpful to me was the really basic questions I had for them. Like, you know, do you really think it's possible to build this gigantic dome on the moon? Do you think people can actually live there? What about the air that they breathe? Where's water going to come from? That's the kind of stuff that I needed to know and they gave it thought and it was really helpful, you know?
And as I said in my Forward and here I took, you know, I took the advice and I took their guidance, but I always keep in mind that it is science fiction, right? You know, there is no such thing as actually beaming on and off the Enterprise. I don't think there ever will be. Well, maybe there will be, I don't know, in 300 years. But, you know, part of science fiction is the fun aspect, the imagination of it. And I'm hoping that when they read the book, they don't scream too loud at some of the stuff I made up. I guess you'll let me know though.
I absolutely will.
Good. John, I really appreciate you taking some time out on your Saturday here. I, I wish you and all the kids, a lot of luck. I just want to put in another plug folks. If you want to read, you know, how these really smart kids and John their instructor guided my story, go out and spend three four, five bucks on a download of Moon Rescue: Escape from the Dome. It's my new book, it's a follow-up to time travel rescue. Thanks again for your help and thank the boys.
It was my pleasure to join you. Thanks for having me.
All right. Peace.