MF 146 : Michael Dennin on Moving Forward with Science, Superheroes, Media, and Education
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
Michael Dennin is an author, speaker, and professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. He has been featured on Ancient Aliens for The History Channel and several documentaries, including Star Wars Tech. Today, Michael will share how asking a question can open the doors to possibilities you never imagined.
Successes at a glance:
Professor of Physics & Astronomy.
Dean, Division of Undergraduate Education.
Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.
Ancient Aliens on The History Channel
Star Wars Tech
Michael describes his recent adventures as “taking advantage of opportunities I never expected in life.” Like many of today’s most popular comic book superheroes, Michael has a day job – an alter ego. For 20 years, Michael has been a professor of physics and astronomy. He started his career following a classic school-to-professorship trajectory. For Michael, who grew up in a household of teachers and professors, education is one of the most aspects of his life and career. Things took a sharp turn when several years ago, some students asked Michael to give a presentation on the science of Superman. The idea was to combine academia and fun by sprinkling in some pop culture. Michael was intrigued and did the presentation. Unexpectedly, this created a whole new iteration for the subjects he loved teaching. Michael started doing seminars on the science of superheroes. This caught the attention of the OC Registrar that did a feature story on it and then like a good superhero story, his notoriety grew. The LA Times picked up the story and this caught the attention of some filmmakers who were in the process of creating a documentary called ‘The Science of Superman.; They contacted Michael and soon, Michael was invited to be a featured guest and panelist on numerous media outlets. For Michael, this was a big risk at the time as he wasn’t sure he wanted the exposure but he took a chance. That chance paid off as opportunities he never imagined came to fruition. Michael calls this his “unusual science outreach” phase. Michael has since been featured in numerous documentaries and television programs, including ‘Ancient Aliens’ for The History Channel and ‘Star Wars Tech.’ All of this led to Michael writing his first book; something he notes that “physicists don’t do!” Moreover, Michael’s media exposure helped him take his academic career to the next level by becoming the Dean of Undergraduate Education and Vice Provost of the University for Teaching and Learning at UC Irvine.
Michael’s “aha” moment:
When Michael was first approached to talk about the physics of superheroes, he never imagined this would become a niche for him. But Michael soon realized that using superheroes as parables for teaching makes science safe, fun, and all the more intriguing to students. One of Michael’s case studies was the classic Superman film starring Christopher Reeve. Michael had his class look at the film thru a scientific lense; analyzing everything from the scene to when Superman flies around the Earth, causing it to rotate in the opposite direction and reverse time, to Superman catching Lois Lane as she falls off a skyscraper. In doing so, Michael has inspired his students to apply what they learn in the classroom to the movies and characters they love. Moreover, this experience led Michael to rethink how teachers and educational institutions present science. Today, Michael is the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, a new department that is taking a critical look at how subjects like science and math are taught. Michael’s mission is simple and timely: to prepare students for a postgraduate world where careers, jobs, and technology change at a rapid pace.
Writing a Book:
As Michael’s story illustrates, you have to be open and persistent to find opportunities. Michael’s media experience led him to write his first book, blending two topics that are of great interest to him: science and religion. As Michael made more media appearances, he started to think about giving talks and getting paid for it. While a regular practice for entrepreneurs and thought leaders, this is not very common for scholars and academicians. Michael started by asking a question: how do I get out there and give those talks. Michael didn’t just ask himself this but started asking everyone he could think of, including the owner of the dance studio where his kid happened to take lessons! Unbeknownst to Michael, this was the perfect person to ask this question to but not in the way he initially intended. The dance instructor connected Michael to the owner of a ghostwriting company for CEOs and business leaders. First, the owner met with Michael. During their meeting, he advised him to write his first book to build the notoriety he needed to become a speaker. Second, he helped Michael identify his niche: superheroes, science, and religion. Third, he advised him to get a ghostwriter to speed up the writing process. While the owner of this company was out of Michael’s price range, he helped Michael find a ghostwriter that was a good fit.
The process of writing a book with a ghostwriter:
What is ghostwriting?
In Michael’s words “an even better text to voice translation than a computer.”
One hour interview with the ghostwriter.
One hour roughly equals one chapter.
The ghostwriter writes the chapter.
You review and edit the chapter heavily.
The workflow continues with each chapter each week.
By chapter 3-4, the ghostwriter should have a good handle on your writing style, making the process that much easier. The content should be in your voice.
Michael shares that a good ghostwriter will be able to identify where you, as a writer, fit into the large world of books and published authors.
Your ghostwriter can also be a test audience. If the concepts you’re writing about make sense to him or her, they will make sense to your target readers.
The process for a 10-chapter book was about 6 months for Michael, moving at about a chapter a week.
Resource or cultural experience that inspired Michael to move forward:
The musical version of Les Miserables: Michael finds the stories of the people so inspiring, especially with respect to the choices we make in life.
Favorite app/website/resource or productivity hack:
Microsoft OneNote: A virtual notebook that Michael finds indispensable for organizing the many notes from all of the meetings he has to attend.
Support the Podcast:
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Advice to past self while making a big decision:
The biggest piece of advice Michael would give his past self is to let go of the fear of making mistakes. This is hard when you’re in academia and you’re accustomed to the mindset of always achieving and avoiding errors. But Michael takes to heart from his most recent experiences, that taking ownership of the mistakes you make and learning from them can be the most valuable way to move forward. And finally, if it’s not working, you can always change and try something else!
Parting wisdom (in a few words):
“Embrace mistakes and learn.”