Today at Berkeley Lab

Lab Engineer Finds Purpose in Writing

— By Keri Troutman

writerBerkeley Lab engineer Joe Silber works on the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) by day and writes ethereal, poetic fiction by night. And he doesn’t see the two activities as that disparate.

“Writing keeps me properly insane, instead of just living the engineering life,” says Silber. “That said, there are a lot of similarities.”

DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. Silber’s most recently published novella, Gudhal, begins with the birth of matter, bringing in a bit of physics: “I was born in a star from a blossom of atomic matter and excitement more violent than June wisteria.”

Gudhal is, at its simplest, a life told by a first-person narrator. It is poetic and philosophical, at times comedic. “Gudhal kind of goes in two directions—one is the narrator telling his life briefly backwards in a few episodes, and the other is him telling it forwards,” says Silber. Flowers play a prominent role in the story, and the title derives from a Hindi word for hibiscus. It isn’t quite science fiction/fantasy, but it isn’t straightforward fiction either. Not surprisingly, Silber hesitates to define his writing style as a certain genre.

Silber started writing about 10 years ago, and for the past few years he’s made it a daily habit. “I’m not that prolific; most days I only get down about 100 words,” he says. “But I have to do it every day, like a discipline.”

Silber’s favorite place to write is Berkeley’s Café Strada. But he also writes on trains, in pubs, or wherever he happens to find inspiration. One of his previous books, Bum, drew a lot on the fact that he wrote much of it on MUNI. Since he admits he’s not much interested in marketing, he self-publishes his books through Amazon.

“For me, writing is all about going to the interior,” says Silber. “My favorite part of it is the first draft, when I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Like his writing style, Silber’s career track defies clear categories. He started off with a studio art degree from Stanford, went on to work as an illustrator and drafter for three years, then as an art teacher. He’s always been interested in engineering, so took some classes towards a second bachelor’s degree at San Francisco City College. He realized that, for him, engineering was more fascinating than he’d given it credit, so he went on to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. Silber has been at the Lab for six years now, working mostly on physics experiments, initially with detectors for high-energy particle physics, and now focusing on the focal plane system for DESI.

“The attraction here is the brilliant people,” he says. “I feel like every day I come to work and I’m just overwhelmed by it.”