In April 2012, we spoke with Matthew Hutson, class of 2003 – the first class of the Graduate Program in Science Writing. Matt lives in New York and has just published his first book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane. He writes for Wired, Discover, Scientific American Mind, and The New York Times Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @silverjacket, or check out his website at http://magicalthinkingbook.com.
GPSW: First, tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since you graduated in 2003.
Matt: After I graduated in 2003, I spent six months at Fermilab writing about physics and life around the lab. From there, I went to San Diego for two years to work at Sally Ride Science as their in-house science writer, producing books and newsletters and electronic content for middle-school kids (mostly girls). Then I moved to New York to be the news editor at Psychology Today. I spent four years there before leaving to focus on my book. I enjoyed the process of book writing so much that as soon as I finished, I started working on another proposal, which I’ve been researching for most of the past year. Over the past six years I’ve also done a bit of freelancing: Wired, Discover, Scientific American Mind, The New York Times Magazine, etc.
GPSW: You’ve just written about how superstitions not only don’t harm us, they actually keep us healthy. What got you interested in the topic?
Matt: I should say that superstitions do harm us; it’s just that they can also sometimes help us, which to me is the more surprising proposition. I got into the topic when I was ten and became an atheist. I wondered why smart people believe strange things. Then in college I became interested in consciousness and studied cognitive neuroscience. I’m curious about how the mind constructs a picture of the universe and what kinds of assumptions we can’t help but make in the process. And, for me, there’s just something so juicy about the topic of magical thinking; it has almost magical appeal itself. It really gets to the heart of how we find meaning in the world.
GPSW: What made you know that it was a book in the making, rather than a magazine article or news feature?
Matt: It started as a feature in Psychology Today. A couple of book agents reached out, but I told them I didn’t have the time to write a book.
I thought about it more and people convinced me I could make the time if I really wanted to. It was definitely a topic I could live with for two or more years, and I felt I had a lot more to say about it.
GPSW: You’ve had a lot of variety in your writing life – physics, space science, the human mind – what’s your favorite thing to write about?
Matt: Definitely the human mind. It’s an area that has such direct relevance to us nearly every moment of the day, and it’s something everyone is interested in, because everyone is interested in themselves.
GPSW: Is it true you’ve played with fire?
Matt: Yes, that’s true. I do poi, and occasionally fire poi. Poi is a form of dance that involves spinning two small weights (sometimes balls of fire) around at the ends of tethers in various patterns. I started learning after I returned from my first Burning Man in 2007.
GPSW: In the spirit of the 10th anniversary of the Graduate Program in Science Writing, do you have a favorite memory of your year here?
Matt: I’ll mention two. While researching my thesis on AI, creativity, and music composition, I visited the home of a Pulitzer-Prize winning composer. There I played for him pieces by actual composers and pieces by a computer program and I watched him struggle to differentiate real Bach from fake.
The other moment would be eating dinner with my sciwrite classmates and reading some of our pieces aloud to each other.
GPSW: What’s next for you?
Matt: I’m working on another book proposal, hoping to become a hermit again.