An Interview with Tom Jackson

  • By Tyler Cymet
  • June 25, 2019

The writer talks science, understanding technology, and how the fridge changed everything.

An Interview with Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson uses writing to make science accessible and entertaining. He has written more than 80 books on the physical and life sciences and is adept at deconstructing complex topics with logic and humor. One of his most recent books for the general public is Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again.

You use stories and humor to share scientific explanations and help people make sense of our natural and manipulated environment. Is your goal for people to think scientifically, or is the storytelling a way to explain specific aspects of our life, like refrigeration?

To make people think scientifically might be overstating it a little. More like I’ve always enjoyed having a “big picture” understanding of things, seeing a system in the whole with all its moving parts. The people who created that understanding for me (us) used science to do it, and it is their lives, ideas, and discoveries that make a good story. I’ve always liked connecting bits of knowledge to see how ideas build on each other, and there are plenty of fun and unexpected links. So, you get two for one — the story of interesting lives and discoveries that are linked through history, and that then creates a big picture of a grand idea.

Do people need to understand or appreciate the how and why of something?

I know it is a cliché, but the world is getting more complicated day by day. We increasingly rely on technology that we as consumers don’t understand — and perhaps several experts would need to work together to be really on top of it. I’m not against that in any way; the technology works and has the potential to make everyone’s lives better. However, people should inform themselves about the world as much as possible so they can retain control over their lives and make good decisions about it. We can’t all be experts in everything, but we should all know enough to tell experts from charlatans.

It was surprising to learn that refrigeration was developed more to indulge people who enjoyed cold drinks and ice cream than from a need to keep people healthy. Is privilege a greater driver of change than health?

Well, money is the driver, but everyone already knows that. I think the actual reason is the resilience of the technology. It is comparatively simple to create a technology for making ice cream from local produce or making blocks of ice for sale in the local area. Building a “cold chain,” or refrigerated transport system for food, is much harder. The idea preceded the ability, and there are many stories of food kept fresh for months while in transit going rotten in a matter of hours because the cold chain did not reach all the way to the consumer back then. The modern cold chain works amazingly well — so well, we barely give it a thought. That was one of the ideas that attracted me to the story of refrigeration in the first place. Just imagine if the cold chain broke.

I was proud to discover that the first refrigerator was built in Maryland by Thomas Moore, a local farmer who found success in selling cold butter. Can science succeed without a commercial connection?

Yes, of course. Science is “blue sky” thinking that seeks to reveal something new. Of course, that takes money, so a scientist is always having to come up with ways of justifying the utility of their discoveries. They say science is a creative pursuit…

I was intrigued by the distinction initially between natural and mechanical cold that existed in the 1850s. Has there always been a “natural is better” movement?

No — the opposite was the case 100 years ago, certainly in communities that were already industrialized. Think back to the radium boom of the 1920s, when anything from toothpaste to jockstraps were laced with radioactive materials to boost vitality. There was a popular acceptance of “science” always leading to progress. It was a marketing ploy in the main, but it is a state of mind that has not really faded (but product testing has certainly gotten better). The suspicion of mechanical cold was based in fact: The ice machines were smelly and could explode! 

Have you had trouble with anti-science activists — flat-earthers who dismiss science and push the thinking that it’s wrong about almost everything?

Not really. [Science] is more likely to be ignored than targeted by people who disagree with what they read. On occasion, I’m happy to state my case, and rarely in my experience do the flat-earthers, et al, have anything like a coherent argument. I suspect that adopting this kind of identity is more often about a deep, gut feeling of helplessness that manifests with the belief that they are being duped; that someone, somewhere, is exercising control over them, and that anxiety manifests as a suspicion of approved or received knowledge, which includes science. 

Do you see the future as being more friendly to science, or will it become more difficult to apply scientific thinking to issues?

I think collectively we’ve had our fingers burned with regard to the public sphere, where new ideas are disseminated. Since moving online, that space has become vulnerable to deception, but it is easy enough to counter. People just need to think more critically, which I think is happening scientifically, but also emotionally.

Are there areas of science that you don’t think you can write about now but hope to in the future?

I would be wary of writing about medicine, even a jolly story about a great event or discovery. Even though it would manifestly not be a reference book or a medical guide, the worry would be that readers would act on the information in it, when only a doctor is able to offer that kind of service. But never say never…

Tyler Cymet, DO, is the chief of clinical education for the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. He recently completed a video textbook on manual medicine for Lecturio and is the author of Health Info to Go and Genomic Medicine and the Generalist Physician: Predicting a Flood When It Has Just Started to Rain.

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