Author Bill Gurstelle talks to us about lighting things on fire in the pursuit of scientific learning, his favorite Jewish foods and how to blow stuff up safely.
Are you from the Twin Cities?
Yes, I’m from St. Paul originally. I had my bar mitzvah at Temple of Aaron.
How did you get interested in the field of ballistics and pyrotechnics?
I’ve always had an interest in projects like that. In 1999, I decided to put together the projects I’d been collecting over the years into a book. I probably had 13 or 14 different projects for ordinary folks to explore ballistics in their basement or garage workshops. I showed it to people who liked it, then got an agent who could sell the book to a mainstream publisher. That was roughly 15 years ago that “Backyard Ballistics” was published.
What were you doing for work when you were tinkering in the basement, developing your first book?
I have a professional engineering license. I was working for some larger companies in the telecommunications field as an engineer and a manager.
After work, I would tinker around and write the book. I didn’t think the book would sell enough where I would be able do this full time, but it proved to be successful. It’s a niche market, but I own it. I’ve published nine books now and have been a full-time writer/author working on my own since 2002.
Is it dangerous to experiment with ballistics in your garage or backyard?
My books have provocative titles, but they are meant to safely guide readers to carry out experiments. If you don’t know what you’re doing and experiment blindly, it could get dangerous. Someone can pursue a topic far more safely with these books than they could without my help. I kind of feel a net gain in terms of safety because these books are out there. People are going to experiment and play around. I make sure they have the right safety equipment and the right materials.
What’s been your favorite book to work on so far?
I’ve liked them all my books for different reasons. “The Art of the Catapult” gets better with age. People are really getting good at making pumpkin chuckers and potato cannons. My first book, “Backyard Ballistics” is probably the most popular, selling half a million copies. My last book, “Defending your Castle,” is an interesting mix of science and history. That book has the best history. The projects are really fun and you have to kind of pretend a bit, “What if your home was being attacked by Mongols?” I built temporary towers, like an English folly, for that book that was really fun.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a couple interesting projects going right now. I’ve had a column in Make magazine for a long time that is focused on remaking history. I go back and look at some famous invention and show how you can recreate it. You get an idea of what a famous scientist was trying to do. I’m taking those columns and turning them into a series of books by expanding on the material that originally appeared in the magazine. I’m hoping that these books will be used in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) education. If young people can recreate some of these landmark inventions, that would be a great learning opportunity. People need to tune into science.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Lag b’omer, because it involves bonfires. I love a good bonfire.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
A really good kreplach or a really good chicken soup with matzo balls. Latkes aren’t my all-time favorite, but I like them once a year. We just had a Hanukkah party at my house with eight kids under the age of four. That is good, too, just once a year.
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