The experience daliona story
Alex Martin recounts how his life led him to developing Experience Daliona and Sidewalk Science Center.
It began on June 12, 2004.
I was 11 years old, just a kid who was fresh out of the sixth grade. On that day, I grabbed a giant pad of paper and a red pen, and began writing my first science-fiction book. Three years later, on December 16, 2007, I published it.
A year later, on December 17, 2008, I published the second book, and, in my high school, officially became "the kid who writes books." I was in the newspaper, hosting book signings, and even spoke at my former elementary school. I was riding life, even if my education was starting to take a hit.
Two years later, at my high school graduation, I walked across the stage and shook hands with my high school principle, who said to me, "Good luck writing your books, Mr. Martin."
A little under two years later, in my sophomore year of college, I published my third book. But this third book was underwhelming. I'd lost the excitement of writing. It didn't feel totally right anymore. I still wanted to write books, but these books weren't going the direction I wanted them to. They weren't fulfilling me. Something had to change.
I wasn't a great student in college. Sure, I'd graduated high school, and I passed my SAT with a 2150, but my academic performance was swiftly headed for a cliff. I went to the college I did in an effort to follow my then-girlfriend, (see where this is going?), and we broke up after my freshman year.
Maybe I should have transferred colleges. Maybe I should have taken a gap year. Maybe I should have gotten a job and reevaluated my life for a while. Whatever I should have done, it doesn't matter, because I didn't do any of it. Sometime in my freshman year of college, something changed in me. I wasn't in love with learning anymore. I wasn't totally awestruck by the little quirks of life like I once used to be. Growing up, I loved astronomy and physics and math, but in college, I wasn't succeeding in them at all. I was floundering, and my grades were dropping, and instead of trying harder, I gave up.
In Fall 2012, I failed out of college. I received three Fs, got put on academic probation, and had to appeal to return.
In December 2012, my mental health hit rock bottom. Maybe I was developing depression prior to then, but I mark failing out of college in Fall 2012 as the moment I truly recognized I had depression, and that December, it hit me as heavy it could. For almost two years after, nobody knew.
In January 2013, after a "successful" appeal to my department, (I felt more guilty and obligated to appeal, rather than ready and willing), I began my next semester. But for the first 10 days, I didn't attend my classes. Not one. Instead, I sat in my campus Starbucks for 13 hours a day and wrote. A story poured out of me. A story of aliens and warfare, of politics and intrigue...and of depression and remorse.
The first draft of this story did not survive my many rounds of editing. The aliens and warfare got completely cut, and the story evolved into an emotional one, where the main character had mentally isolated himself from the world, had given up on trying to become successful and fulfilled, and was obsessed with a girl who lived across the galaxy. This story became Embassy, the first book in my Recovery series.
Recovery from mental health. Recovery from a past version of myself. Recovery from the choices I'd made. Recovery from letting life get away from me. Recovery from losing interest in the things I once loved.
Embassy evolved out of my experiences, my mental health, my choices, and, perhaps most of all, the person I wanted to be, but couldn't be.
I didn't do well in college throughout 2013, but I at least passed my classes. In Spring 2014, I took a gap semester, because despite passing (barely) it was clear I wasn't going to do well the next. Even so, I didn't stop writing and editing Embassy, and finally published it in October 2014.
At the same time in Fall 2014, I wrote the entire first draft of Resonance, the sequel to Embassy. If Embassy was a story of recognizing failing mental health and taking steps to improve it, Resonance was a story of hope and happiness, of adventure and friendship, of humanity and science.
I think it was writing Resonance that helped me fall in love with learning again. Not academic learning, but taking the initiative to do my own research, satiate my curiosity, and explore my imagination. For Resonance, I even developed my own physical equations for phenomena in the story's universe, much of which lines up with real-world physics. And for world-building, I watched 50+ hours of nature and science documentaries. By the time I finished the first draft, I knew I was in love with learning again, and I knew these books could be an outlet for the knowledge I was acquiring.
But that was the irony: in writing Resonance, I destroyed my academic education. In Fall 2014, I wrote Resonance every single day, but I didn't attend any college classes, except for one. I received a D in that course, and an F in the other five. It was the epitome of academic failure, the ironic end of an entire three months that had made me truly love math and science again.
For the second time in two years, I failed out of college. This time, I received a harsh warning, and was restricted from attending the next semester.
Back home, I started working at a ski resort 60+ hours a week, because I was paying for an apartment all the way across the state that I wasn't living in due to failing out of college again. Every single day, I would wake up at five in the morning, go to my local coffee shop, write and edit Resonance for a few hours, then drive an hour to work, and not get home until 11pm. I distinctly remember one night not getting home until after 1am, because a snow storm hit and the highway hadn't been cleared. But every day, I'd wake up and do it again. On the weekends, I worked a double shift at the resort.
Despite working at the ski resort, I made sure I reinforced my rekindled love for math and science through editing Resonance. I made it my absolute mission to make sure this book was as scientifically intriguing as it could be, that the nature readers would encounter reflected a planet that could truly exist somewhere out there in the cosmos, that readers would become inspired, that their curiosity would flare, that they would marvel at their place in the universe and gaze up at the stars every night for the rest of their lives.
Resonance wasn't my passion. It was my celebration of humanity, of science, of life.
And it's where Experience Daliona was born.
Within Resonance, there is an organization that performs science education and outreach, promotes ecotourism, and highlights artists and entrepreneurs from around the planet Daliona who express themselves through science. It is exactly this organization that inspired me to develop a website for my book series, the very website you are on right now: Experience Daliona.
It began as a purely fictional website, giving readers extra content to peruse and really see the world - the entire universe - spinning around inside my head. But over time, Experience Daliona became a little bit more than that. I added a page where I would publish articles about real science, but only published one article every few months.
In 2016, I finally graduated college as an English major with a minor in Mathematics. High on my newfound success and drive, I immediately applied to graduate school, thinking this was it, I was on top of my game, I was going to get a master's degree in space studies and orbital mechanics, get a job at a rocket company, and maybe even design the first Martian habitats.
Except...that didn't happen.
For the first couple weeks of my graduate program, I was doing fine. I was excited, loving the concepts I was learning, intrigued by the politics of the space race and where the future could be headed. But halfway through the semester, I lost that drive again. I had begun writing my next book, Perihelid, and instead of focusing on my studies and using my drive and motivation to succeed academically, I focused what I was learning into this next book, developing the backstory and foreshadowing future events using the information I was given in my graduate classes.
It was around then I realized maybe my lack of success in formal education isn't that I'm not smart enough, or not trying hard enough, or not studying enough. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I felt like my efforts and strengths would be put to better use elsewhere, that this formal education couldn't possibly lead me to doing what I was actually good at. Maybe following a traditional route and getting a professional job that paid well just wasn't for me. Maybe I was able to learn all the information, but unable to effectively express my knowledge in the traditional system of tests and homework. Maybe I had the potential to love learning and be successful and put it to good use, but maybe formal education and going the traditional route of success in life just wasn't how I could best perform mentally, let alone academically. Maybe I'd always been pushed in one direction, but needed to go another, and wasn't allowed to, because "there's only one path to success."
After graduating college, and while in graduate school for a semester, I worked at a sports retail store for just over a year. I wrote and edited Perihelid in that time, the sequel to Resonance, and the third book in the current series. I wrote every single day, without exception, every morning before work, usually from about 5:30am to 9:30am. I befriended all the baristas at my local Starbucks, regularly got free food (shhhh), and even got my customized drink, the Fancy Grand Bland, displayed on the chalk menu board (for those curious, it was a grande blond roast coffee with two pumps each of hazelnut and vanilla, aka, my writing fuel).
In September 2017, I moved to Savannah, Georgia. This was largely on a whim. I had no job to come to, no school I was attending, no family in the area. I had two friends (who had invited me to live with them earlier in the summer), my savings (and my massive credit card and student debt), and nothing else. I was unemployed for a month as I finished editing Perihelid, but on October 17, I published it. Perihelid is the culmination of my main character's journey, when he rises above his past regrets and lack of ambition, and recognizes what he must do to truly make an impact on his crew and the Embassy Program, but most of all, he finally finds the strength he's been missing within himself and takes control of his life, ending his role as the self-imposed victim.
Days after publishing Perihelid, I got a job as a personalized gift engraver at the local mall. It was steady work for a time, but during the Christmas season, I worked 80+ hours a week. To say the least, it was mentally and emotionally taxing.
One of the only bright spots of the holiday season was coming across a tweet from someone looking for people to speak in her symposium about science communication in a conference being held in Finland in June 2018. I replied, we talked through it, and shortly after, she accepted me. My topic? How I use my science-fiction books to connect people with science and nature.
Following Christmas, my brain tanked into the worst depressive episode I've had since "overcoming" (I use that word loosely) my depression two years ago. A combination of factors led to it, from being completely overworked and not eating or sleeping properly, to blaming myself and being so confused over some personal things that weren't going right in my life. The worst of the episode dissipated about a week later, but the mental repercussions carried on, and things were about to get worse.
The job at the mall shut down mid-January, leaving me without a job for the second time since moving to Savannah. To pass the time, I took up making science videos about cool phenomena and tricks you could do with physics. But I mostly stayed inside the apartment to film those, and I didn't feel fulfilled making them. It worried me, because without a book to write, and without a job in the science field, I was becoming scared that I would fall back over that cliff, that my love of learning and excitement for the future might fade again. I didn't know where to turn to keep that passion alive.
To make matters worse, I was nearing two months without a job. I hit $0 in my bank account twice in February as I burned through the last of my savings. Then I got my tax refund, had a spike in my book sales that helped a lot...and that was it. It was early March 2018, I had a couple hundred dollars to my name, and at this point, I had applied to more than 80 jobs related to science education around the country. Of those, I got exactly four interviews: one with the science center in Des Moines, Iowa, one at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and two in Savannah.
The Des Moines interview went great. The first Savannah interview went...blah. The second Savannah interview was incredible, and the NASA interview would have been good, but while visiting, I felt as if I'd be trapped doing the exact same thing every day, and I knew I wouldn't thrive there. So I accepted the second Savannah position (where I am now) working with kids at an exploration center, where I get to present and develop new programs, and exercise my strengths.
A few days later, I discovered an Instagram page called the Scicommunity, which featured dozens of scientists and educators from around the world. I quickly plugged myself into the page and conversation, made acquaintances with several members (many of whom are now my close friends and colleagues, and have been able to meet some of them in person), and I even became a featured member on the page.
As I worked at my Savannah job, I was able to think without being stifled. As a member of the Scicommunity, I was able to connect with scientists and people of all backgrounds who shared my interests and desires.
It was as if the Universe had gotten me here, to this moment, so that I could begin to thrive.
Within days of being hired at the exploration center, I brought on several new science activities for kids to engage with. On my own time, I planned out a new video series for my YouTube channel, and literally took to the streets, interviewing people about various scientific concepts, as well as having conversations and learn from people I otherwise would have never met. All the while, I developed my conference speech and figured out a way to pay for the trip to Finland. I collaborated with a dozen scientists and communicators from around the world to create a video about how we all connect with nature (the theme of the symposium) as a project to increase visibility. I set up interviews in Savannah and Los Angeles to talk about the videos I was making, and how I wanted to change how we approach science communication and education.
I traveled to Finland, my first time ever leaving the United States (aside from Niagara Falls and a cruise into Mexico). I met dozens of people I'd been following on social media, and made amazing new friends and connections. When I returned, I continued creating videos for Experience Daliona...but a new idea was in my head.
On July 11, 2018, I received a permit to "perform" on the streets and parks of Savannah. That evening, I took a table to Forsyth Park, set up four different science demonstrations, and invited kids, teens, students, and adults to come over and engage with these hands-on science experiments themselves.
Sidewalk Science Center was born.
In the first month, I estimated that more than 1,000 people had stopped by my table. I began getting permission to take pictures of participants, and set up an Instagram to showcase the hundreds of people who were engaging with the table. Though most of the audience is kids, I constantly get curious adults and local students, and barring any hectic younger children, every single person who has stopped and participated left smiling. As a souvenir, I hand out diffraction glasses, which turn all the light you see into rainbows.
I'm now a monthly science contributor to the local newspaper. I've had people purchase some of the experiments on-the-spot. I've had out-of-town guests come back multiple days in a row. I get to chat with locals who see me every day I'm out. I've grown my network, met amazing people, and even traveled to other cities to host Sidewalk Science Center.
Now, I'm working closely with the founder of the Scicommunity, and several of its members, to develop unique kits that explore different experiments and concepts. These will meet educational standards, but still have their own twist to give people a memorable and exciting approach to science education. We want to provide these kits not just as educational tools, but powerful resources that could perhaps show students struggling in their own education that there are alternate paths we can follow to pursue education and still come out knowledgeable and successful, and more importantly, qualified.
I'm now working hard to make sure Sidewalk Science Center grows organically and begins to have permanent locations around the entire world, so that any person of any social or financial status can engage with science and educate themselves on-the-spot, but most importantly, become inspired to explore their curiosity and have the resources to pursue it long after they've left the table.
This is how Experience Daliona and Sidewalk Science Center came to be. It's been a long road. It's been stressful. It's seen my highest and lowest points. It's seen me fall in and out of love with learning. It didn't just pop into existence, nor did I have a stash of cash on hand at all times, ready to sell people the next big thing. There were entire months where I skipped eating a meal every day, where I couldn't afford to repair the AC in my car despite the blazing Georgia heat, where I almost ran out of money for gas on longer trips, where I racked up hundreds of dollars in fees for not being able to pay two bills for two months in a row.
Life has not been the most fun, glamorous adventure. It's been lesson after lesson, failure after failure, sleepless nights and cramped stomachs, lost luggage and debt collectors on the phone. But now, Sidewalk Science Center exists and is on the verge of thriving, and it's allowing me the opportunity to give to the world what, for years, I was unable to give myself.
Thank you for taking the time to learn why Experience Daliona and Sidewalk Science Center exist. It is my mission to see that they endure.
To all our endeavors,
Phase one: Sidewalk science center
science demonstrations on the street
interviews for youtube videos
phase two: travel and events
regular public and school events
Hosting and attending national science festivals
Bring Experience Daliona to other cities
Continued Sidewalk Science Center Program in Savannah
phase three: The Science Encounter
permanent programs in multiple cities
Permanent presence at national science festivals
develop an independent non-profit science center in savannah, georgia
"Make science education visible in savannah"
local Outreach programs
after school programs
community volunteer programs
partnerships with local historical and scientific sites
phase four: the first campus
development of a permanent Experience Daliona campus
construction of campus
"An educational, olympic park-style campus"
steam-focused learning and educational institutions
state-of-the-art technology and experiences
research and application laboratories
science center and sci-art museum
onsite educational camps
sports venues for sports seen in Martin's books
domestic and global volunteer and outreach programs
protected forests and lands
100% renewable energy