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Interview: Laurie Winkless talks about Sticky


Laurie Winkless is a physicist, science journalist, communications consultant, educator, public speaker, and author. Her latest book Sticky looks at the science of surfaces. In Sticky Laurie looks at the forces that operate on and between surfaces, with friction playing the leading role. Seeking out the answers from experts scattered across the globe, Laurie uncovers a stack of scientific mysteries along the way.


Can you tell us a little about the new book?

Sticky is a fun (and hopefully surprising) journey into the world of friction and surface science. It covers a wide range of topics – from high speed slight and Formula 1, to geckos, braille, and earthquakes. And it features lots of incredible scientists from all over the world.


How difficult was it writing the follow up to your first book Science and the City and what did you find different about the process from the first book?

Looking back, I think my naiveté is what powered me through the writing of Science and the City! With Sticky, I definitely suffered from ‘second album syndrome’. It took much, much longer to research and write than I expected. Part of the reason for this can be found in the goals I set myself for Sticky. For a start, I wanted to cover fewer topics in more detail, rather than try (and fail) to cover everything on my “oh that’s interesting” list. This meant diving into topics in far greater detail than I’d done with Science and the City. I also wanted to focus more on the stories around the science and on the people actually doing the research, so finding the right interviewees became extra important. The whole process was hard; a real struggle at times, but in truth I think the result is a better, more complete book.


What research was involved?

A huge amount of reading – mainly scientific papers and patents, but I also read reports, news stories and other books. I ended up with somewhere in the range of 860 documents in my reference folder! I also interviewed a lot of scientists, engineers, artists, designers. 43 of them are quoted in the book. Unfortunately, many of these interviews had to happen over Zoom, but I did get to visit a few interesting places, including a robotics lab in California, a paint factory, and the headquarters of an F1 team.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I wish I could say that I wrote every single day, but that’s not the case. Like many writers, I’m self-employed, and received only a very small advance, so I had to balance book-writing with paid work. The latter took priority a little too often. But on my dedicated ‘book days’, I was always pretty disciplined. I’m a morning person, so I’d start with a gym visit or a walk in my neighbourhood, getting back to my desk, showered and breakfasted, by 8am. I’d work through to lunch, then again till dinner. Because each chapter focuses on a specific topic, I treated each one as its own project. So I’d do all the research for that topic before writing it up. Then onto the next chapter / topic. And so on.


In mid-2020, I finally accepted that if I were to stand any chance of hitting my deadline, I’d have to go into hermit mode, and focus on the book full-time. I did that from September 2020 until February 2021. During that time, I researched and wrote approximately half the book. It was intense and stressful, but the most intellectually stimulating period I’ve ever experienced.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany the new book, name a song or two you would include.

Would you believe it, I made a playlist! I’d hoped to use song titles as my chapter headers, but it proved to be too tricky, so we went a different direction. I kept the list anyway. It’s here if anyone is interested https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSIilNeVpi18W6hOZEwtzf2X2WAA2ajYa


What did you enjoy the most about writing Sticky?

I am pathologically curious, and I love learning new things. Writing Sticky was an incredible vehicle for that. I’ve never felt so inspired while working on a project. I got to revisit some of my own scientific research and explore areas entirely new to me. My brain is still fizzing, and that’s a delightful feeling.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I cried with relief immediately after sending the email to Bloomsbury. I text my long-suffering family, and then went down to the beach (I live in Petone) with a coffee and cake and just listened to the sea. A couple of weeks later, my husband and I had an awesome holiday in the South Island. I didn’t even bring my laptop!


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I loved Animal Vegetable Criminal by Mary Roach. She is the absolute maestro at finding ‘weird’ science stories and weaving them together into a rich, entertaining narrative. I also thoroughly enjoyed Nano, a children’s book written by Dr Jess Wade and illustrated by Melissa Castrillon. It takes an incredibly complex topic and turns it into a beautiful journey that inspires children to view the world differently. And finally, The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez, which looks at eight inventions that shaped the world. Ainissa is an incredible writer and scientist – the perfect person to tell this story.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m very much hoping to get back to Ireland in the next few months to see my family. Work-wise, amongst all of the various book promo, it’s pretty much back to ‘normal’ for me – working with research labs, universities and engineering companies on lots of different projects.