Chicago native Scott Britz-Cunningham moved to Worcester a few years ago to study nuclear medicine at UMass Memorial Medical Center, but he didn’t stop working when he came home at night. Britz-Cunningham has written three science thrillers over the past 10 years, the latest of which, The Interface, came out in early November. Last Call sat down with Britz-Cunningham to learn about the inspiration behind “Interface,” the balance between medical work and writing, and his home city.
Can you tell us about the “interface”?
When I saw this couple sitting together in a restaurant, I got a little pissed off. They ordered a nice dinner and looked like a good couple, but they just sat there glued to their phones and didn’t even talk. I started thinking that this technology we have is changing us. It’s changing the way we interact, it’s changing our relationships, our societies, our politics, everything. I decided to write a book about it. What I’ve done is, I’ve taken it to the extreme to show what might happen in the future if this trend continues and there’s nothing to turn it back. I envision a world where people gave up all their cell phones and now have an implant directly in their brains so they can connect to each other 24/7. You can’t turn it off, you can’t really get rid of it. What would happen if society was like this?
The creator of these implants, for reasons explained in the book, opposed his invention due to the trauma he suffered. He wanted to get rid of it, however, it was very popular. Nobody wants to get rid of these because they love them. He had to figure out a way to get them off the implants, so he figured out a way to scare everyone so that they would get rid of the implants. What he did was he discovered a digital virus that he could transmit through the interface and contract it, which would cause insanity and death within days.
How did current technology inspire this book?
s efficiency [the implants] Will be very high, but so is the cost because you can never get rid of it. A lot of things work on popularity rather than legal knowledge. I’ve seen it start now through social media. You post something that offends someone or gets someone excited about something, and thousands of people you’ve never met will suddenly join forces to attack you and send you all sorts of messages. I have an example in the book where someone experienced this firsthand and was shocked by what happened. I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s starting to do some damage and change the status quo.
What is your personal experience with social media and what questions do you write about in “Interface”?
My experience is that I stay away from it. I did set up a Facebook account 10 years ago when the publisher suggested it to me, but I never actually used it. I don’t have time to do anything about it. Eventually they locked me out because I was inactive. I’d rather close it. I don’t use any social media at all. I text, I email, I have my own website. Other than that, I don’t use it. I’m very old-fashioned, I prefer reading books to watching TV. I prefer to think and write rather than communicate to people what I ate for breakfast or what my dog did today.
Can you talk about what you do at the UMass Memorial?
I do nuclear medicine. It is a branch of medicine that looks at the functions of different parts of the body. You have radiology, which looks at the structure of everything, and nuclear medicine really looks at function. We will inject radioactive material into the body and observe how the heart beats and how blood flows within the heart. We inject small amounts of radioactive compounds directly into a person’s blood, photograph where those compounds enter the body and deduce a lot from it. This is not a well understood field, even in the medical field. Sometimes we have a nickname and they call it “unknown drug”, but despite that, we know what we’re looking at.
How do you incorporate your medical knowledge into your books?
These books have scientific and medical backgrounds. There are three of them, and they are almost all of the same type. In fact, to me, they’re like a trilogy. The first is about artificial intelligence, the second is about gene therapy for longevity, and they are thrillers like this one. They all have this scientific background. My work actually contributes a lot to this. The first book, Code White, was the hospital I described in Chicago, where I grew up, but it was very similar to Brigham and Women’s Hospital where I worked. If you know Brigham, you’ll recognize something in the scene.
Can you talk about your two previous books?
[My first book is] Called “Code White,” it’s about a new treatment, and they implanted a computer in the boy’s brain. He was blinded by a tumor, and they replaced part of his brain with the implant. In the process, there was a bomb threat in the hospital, which is where the title came from. When I was at Brigham and Women’s, “code white” was a security bulletin for bomb threats. The whole thing is based on this bomb threat, which seems to be trying to sabotage the groundbreaking operation against this kid.
The second book, The Immortal, is about a man who invents a gene therapy that stops the aging process. I detail how to do this in my book. It seems like everyone has a limit on how long they can live, and in the book, what I’m proposing is that that clock isn’t telomeres or anything like that. This is what they call DNA methylation. There’s a lot of detail in there, and I actually explain how you create this gene therapy vector, what it might look like, how it might work, and how it can stop the aging process.
How did you come to Worcester?
At the end of medical school, you’ll go through a residency interview process, where you can learn about your actual specialty. It gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of the country that I had never seen before, so I did interviews in Seattle, Iowa, Missouri, and here, and when I got here, everything was just right. I love it, my wife loves it, they love me, and I’ve been there ever since.
I love Worcester. It’s a quieter area where people are more grounded and have a better relationship with you. It’s easier to do things with friends, and it’s a lot of culture. You have the Hannover Theater and the Mechanical Hall. You have a lot of good high culture, you have great restaurants, all kinds of ethnic restaurants, they’re all great, and there’s a lot of variety. (He points to the old building visible through the windows.) Worcester is a beautiful town.
Britz-Cunningham’s work can be found on his website scottbritzcunningham.com.