Physics professor Gregory Benford worked his way through the maze of high-energy electronics equipment in the basement physics laboratory at UC Irvine.
"I spend a fair amount of time down here going over data and talking to students," noted Benford, stopping at a control panel where several graduate students were about to conduct an experiment with an electron beam accelerator.
The large, orange device--about the size of a Volkswagen with a long tube extending from it--fires a beam of electrons traveling close to the speed of light into high-energy plasma: hot ionized atoms.
"We're doing it to simulate the environments in astrophysics such as pulsars, quasars and the sun," said Benford, as one of the students pressed the red firing button.
A muffled bang briefly drowned out the constant clacking of the accelerator's vacuum pumps. Benford smiled.
"There we go, that was it," he said. "The whole aim is to look at the electromagnetic radiation that emerges. If we're going to have long space missions we've got to be able to predict the advent of solar storms."
As a scientist whose research specialties include plasma physics and high-energy astrophysics, Benford obviously knows his way around an electron beam accelerator.
But he also knows his way around a word processor--as a successful, award-winning science fiction author noted for his fictional use of the latest scientific advances.
Indeed, Benford, 44, is that rara avis of the literary world: a science fiction writer who is a working scientist.
Benford's ninth novel, "Artifact," described by one reviewer as a "well-turned, scary near-future thriller," was published by Tor Books in June.
The plot of "Artifact," which Benford calls an "intellectual suspense novel," is set in motion when an independent archeologist--an attractive, strong-willed American woman--working an ancient Mycenaean site in Greece discovers embedded in a tomb a large black granite cube with a mysterious amber cone protruding from it.
Appropriately, a physics laboratory figures prominently in the novel when, due to increasing anti-Americanism in Greece, the artifact is smuggled back to Boston, where an MIT physics professor discovers that trapped inside is a microscopic particle--a tiny "black hole"--capable of unimaginable destruction.
Benford concedes that the scenes set in the physics lab are "the riskiest part of the novel." Showing scientists at work, he wryly notes, "is basically about as interesting as watching paint dry."
Benford, however, pulls it off.
Indeed, his "accurate, telling accounts of scientists at work," as a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews puts it, have become Benford's hallmark as an author.
His award-winning 1980 novel, "Timescape" (Simon and Schuster), was praised by the Manchester Guardian as being "quite possibly the best novel about scientists yet." It's about a team of Cambridge University scientists who attempt to save the world from ecological disaster by sending a beam of "tachyons" (theoretical particles that move faster than the speed of light) back in time with a coded warning from the future.
Benford's blend of scientific accuracy and strong plots and characters has earned him best-seller status ("Timescape," which is printed in six languages, has sold 300,000 paperbacks and 12,000 hardback copies). His writing also has earned him near-six-figure advances from publishers and top science fiction writing awards, including the British Science Fiction Award (for "Timescape") and two Nebula Awards, which are presented annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America (for "Timescape" and "If the Stars Are Gods," published in 1975). Not bad for someone who started writing science fiction short stories in 1964 merely for "recreation" while a graduate student at what is now UC San Diego.
70 Short Stories
Since then, Benford has published about 70 short stories--St. Martin's will release a hardback collection of his short stories next year--and he now turns out about one novel a year.
Benford, however, still views his writing as recreation.
"Oh sure, it's a hobby," he said during an interview in his cluttered, cubbyhole of an office in UCI's physical science building. "If you write four pages a week--typed, double-spaced--at the end of the year you'll have a novel."
Benford grinned when asked if that was his own method of writing.
"No, but I like to say that to people," said the bearded professor, casually attired in jogging shoes and a short-sleeved blue shirt with a pen peeking out of the breast pocket. "Nobody gives much weight to the simple process of accretion. You can sit down and turn out copy fast or slow, and strangely enough it doesn't vary much in quality. Most of writing is just work. It's really like making shoes."
'I Prefer Science'
Although Benford acknowledges that he could "live off the money" he makes from his novels--"Timescape" alone so far has earned him about $200,000--he has no intention of abandoning university life for full-time writing.