Jennifer Ouellette describes herself as a "recovering" English major who stumbled into science writing by accident and has been "exploring her inner geek ever since." Ouellette often uses pop culture, fantasy, and science fiction as tools to communicate scientific ideas to mainstream audiences. "I abandoned the assigned problems in standard calculus textbooks and followed my curiosity," she writes in her 2010 book The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. "Wherever I happened to be--a Vegas casino, Disneyland, surfing in Hawaii, or sweating on the elliptical ... I asked myself, where is the calculus in this experience?"
From 1995 to 2004 she served as a contributing editor to Industrial Physicist magazine and later served as the science editor at Gizmodo. She is a current contributor to Ars Technica and has been featured in the New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Nature, Physics Today, and numerous other outlets. Ouellette also has a long-running blog called Cocktail Party Physics ("Serving up science and culture with a splash of wit"). In addition to The Calculus Diaries, her books include Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics (2005), The Physics of the Buffyverse (2006), and Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self (2014).
In 2008 Ouellette founded the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a Los Angeles-based initiative of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at fostering creative collaborations between scientists and entertainment-industry professionals. From 2012-2015 she was a member of CoSTEP--the Committee on Science and Technology Engagement with the Public--organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and from 2013-2016 she served on the American Physical Society's Committee on Informing the Public.
The following has been adapted from Ouellette's speech in acceptance of the 2018 Humanist of the Year Award, delivered on May 18 at the AHA's annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Thank you so much. This is a tremendous honor and I am sincerely humbled by it. I hope my evangelical Christian parents are not utterly horrified by it.
Yes, I was raised evangelical, and growing up, "secular humanist" was pretty much synonymous with Satan. No truly good person could possibly be a humanist because all good comes from God. Or so I was taught. I don't need to tell anyone here that morality is not the exclusive domain of belief in a god. Anyone can live a good, fulfilling life, even without religion. Here I want to speak to you from the heart about something else: how to have a good death at the end of that good, fulfilling life. I'm not trying to bum you out. Truly! But humanists are committed to facing the facts. The fact that each and every one of us will eventually die is the most brutal fact of all. So it behooves us to talk openly and honestly about it. We don't do that enough.
It's something I've been thinking about a lot over the last three years, ever since I lost my beloved brother, David, to cancer on New Year's Day 2015. I can't say it was a good death; at least it was a fast death, which was a mercy, given the degree of pain he was in. It didn't have to be that way. Watching his suffering compelled me to give serious consideration to how his death--indeed, any death--could be...