Each year, at its annual conference, the American Humanist Association presents the Humanist of the Year award in recognition of the work and contributions of a distinguished individual who exhibits the values of humanism. We are pleased to announce that this year’s Humanist of the Year award will be presented to science writer Jennifer Ouellette at our 77th Annual Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Though Ouellette’s passion in college was English, she later fell into science writing and has never looked back. Ouellette’s career as a popular writer spans decades. From 1995 to 2004 she served as a contributing editor to Industrial Physicist magazine, a publication of the American Institute of Physics. She later had a stint as the science editor at Gizmodo and is a regular contributor to Quanta. From 2005 to 2014, Ouellette published four books about the intersection of science and pop culture: Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, The Physics of the Buffyverse, and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics.
In a 2012 interview with WIRED magazine’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, Ouellette talked about her interest in horror and fantasy from an early age and how this interest inspired themes in her work. For example, in The Calculus Diaries (2010), she draws a parallel between a zombie outbreak and outbreaks of real disease, such as Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (more commonly known as mad cow disease). The zombie metaphor serves as a cautionary tale for ignoring medicine and science. Ouellette often uses pop culture, fantasy, and science fiction as tools to communicate scientific ideas to mainstream audiences. It’s an approach that makes her work accessible and interesting to a wide audience and comes naturally to her. “I abandoned the assigned problems in standard calculus textbooks and followed my curiosity,” she writes in The Calculus Diaries. “Wherever I happened to be—a Vegas casino, Disneyland, surfing in Hawaii, or sweating on the elliptical in Boesel’s Green Microgym—I asked myself, “Where is the calculus in this experience?”
Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Nature, Mental Floss, Physics Today, and numerous other outlets. She long-running blog called Cocktail Party Physics (hosted at Scientific American from 2011-2015) where she writes under the pseudonym Jen-Luc Piquant and covers all manner of science and culture topics and lists fun physics-inspired drinks like the Heavy G (“the perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down”) and Listening to the Drums of Feynman (“the perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations”).
Ouellette’s dedication to science education led to her founding, in 2008, 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—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.
Science is near and dear to humanists’ hearts and we couldn’t be happier to honor Jennifer Ouellette. We look forward to hearing more about her efforts to creatively communicate physics to the public when she accepts the Humanist of the Year Award at the Friday night banquet on May 18, 2018, at the AHA’s 77th Annual Conference at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
If you don’t already have your tickets, there’s still time. Online registration and discounted hotel room rates are ending soon so book your trip before it’s too late!