Pat Brennan

Science Writer

Where are you from?

I was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, but I grew up in Tucson, Arizona.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

When I was a kid, I remember my dad (who died when I was young) being a giant fan of space and NASA. He pointed out constellations and I watched the first Moon landing with him. For me, it was all about space and dinosaurs.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I was a newspaper science reporter for many years, but left the business because it seemed increasingly unstable. I’d covered stories out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and I reached out about jobs, and ended up being hired to write for the NASA exoplanet portal and the sea level portal.

Tell us about your job. What do you do as a science writer?

I write feature stories, background “explainer” stories, scientist profiles and other assorted products. I’ve also helped out with writing content for display materials, such as exoplanet posters, and staffing NASA booths at conferences and at “Ticket to Explore JPL.” Most of my job is very similar to what I did at the newspaper: reporting, doing interviews, then writing up the story.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

I came at just the right time to help build two NASA web portals from the ground up: the sea level portal and the revamped exoplanet portal. That was pretty exciting. I also got to work on stories about the amazing discovery of seven planets roughly the size of Earth orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1, some 40 light years away.

What has been your biggest professional challenge and how did you overcome it?

At the beginning of my journalism career, I seemed to think small mistakes were OK as long as I told a good narrative story. Luckily, early experiences convinced me just the opposite was true: accuracy was overwhelmingly the most important thing, full stop. From then on I just checked and rechecked facts compulsively before a story was published. I wouldn’t have lasted as a reporter otherwise.

Pat in Yellowstone
Pat in Yellowstone National Park.

What has been your biggest personal challenge, and how did you overcome it?

Shyness was an issue early on, but reporting cures you of that pretty fast. Apart from that, a lack of confidence and a lack of focus. I seemed to decide certain outcomes were impossible, or extremely improbable, though with little or no evidence. Getting out and doing things often revealed that they could, in fact, be done (again, journalism is a good tonic for self-limiting behavior). Focus came a little more slowly. It took me most of my young adulthood to dial back the fun and distraction and get more serious and disciplined when necessary. The editors and managers I worked for left plenty of room for me (and others of my generation) to do this. I don’t think young people in journalism have that luxury today— they have to be on the ball from the get-go.

Who inspires you?

Charles Darwin, Abe Lincoln, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, a friend and young scientist who periodically works on exoplanets at JPL named Sophia Sanchez-Maes, Miss Eagle (my high school English teacher), Sara Seager, Jill Tarter and probably a bunch of others I’m forgetting.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Jump in. If you want to be a reporter, report. If you want to be a writer, write. Sitting around thinking about it is sometimes helpful, but don’t overdo it.

What are some fun facts about yourself or something people might not know about you?

I’ve traveled more vertically than horizontally (at least on a map). I’ve been north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle (yes, on a visit to Antarctica, including the South Pole). Once a year I try to run off to Yellowstone National Park to sleep in a tent and hang out with bison, bears, elk and assorted other creatures. By the end I look like a creature myself.

What is your favorite space image and why?

Pale blue dot

I’m pretty fond of the “pale blue dot” image from Voyager 1.

A tiny little Earth seems caught up in a sunbeam, like a dust mote. If there is life on something so small and inconsequential in the universe, maybe we’re just one of trillions. And if so, maybe we’ll find them before too much longer. As a bonus, the photo was taken by a machine sent from Earth that is now beyond the planets of our solar system, in interstellar space.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.