Life under the lens: two paths to science writing

Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has a name for his favorite type of writers: “the failed scientists.” These logically-minded individuals at first pursued the mastery of a scientific field, thinking their place in life was in a lab, before undergoing a profound change of heart. Turning to writing, they found a consolation prize: the nerdy remnants of their specialization allowed them to translate between science and plain English. (Anderson was a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming an editor at The Economist.)

Yet this is not the only way to end at that curious destination, science writing. This summer, in a Magazine Editing class at the Medill School of Journalism taught by Charles Whitaker, I had the chance to speak with two representatives of distinct trajectories to science writing: Alan Burdick, senior editor at The New Yorker, and Laura Helmuth, health and science editor at Slate.com. Burdick was formerly an editor at Discover magazine; before that, he edited science stories for The New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct The Sciences. Helmuth formerly served as a senior editor covering nature, science, technology, and the environment for Smithsonian magazine; before that, she reported and edited at Science magazine.

Helmuth came from the sciences. Burdick came from the humanities. Both, in their own way, found academia too limiting a box. For these two science writers, journalism proved more satisfying way to engage with the world and the voices that fill it. Here is a summary of their paths to science writing and what they see as its role in a world in flux. Read the rest of this entry »


Ocean Exploration, Without The Claustrophobic Submarine

Google Earth is a magnificent production- you can virturally tour the whole world from a computer chair. Or so everyone thought, until one Sylvia Earle pointed out the major flaw in this idea. “My children, my grandchildren think it is great to see their backyard, fly through the Grand Canyon, visit other countries,” she said to John Hanke one day at a conference. Hanke happened to be the Director of Google Earth and Maps, and Earle had a bone to pick with him. “But, John, when are you going to finish it? You should call Google Earth ‘Google Dirt’. What about the ¾ of the planet that is blue?”

Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer and explorer, currently a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, formerly the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and recipient of 22 honorary degrees. She is a well-traveled aquanaut, diving in subs and scuba gear many times over, setting records for depth, including a solo sub dive to 1000 meters. Earle has spent her many decades studying the ocean and watching it change, and many countries and organizations have awarded her their highest honors. She has some serious credits. Earle had just met Hanke at a conference in Spain. “I had a chance publicly to say how much I love Google Earth,” she wrote later. And to point out that the then-current version of Google Earth was not complete. She wanted the vicarious exploring to extend to “the real Hawaiian islands, not just the mountain tops that poke through the ocean’s surface.”

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Bad archaeology, the Queen of Sheba, and a water park

Lazy rivers are the best (Wikimedia Commons/Christine Schmidt).

Lazy rivers are the best (Wikimedia Commons/Christine Schmidt).

I love water parks. The slides, the wave pools, the smell of sunscreen, the funnel cakes, and above all the lazy rivers. A good water park will always have a soft spot in my heart.

That’s why when I first learned of a water park in South Africa called Sun City that seemed to be propagating a myth that an ancient civilization of European origin had built a great lost city in the region, I was a little shocked. In my 10th grade world history class, we watched a documentary about the real ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an archaeological site with a controversial past. It’s final images were of children frolicking at Sun City. The innocence of my childhood spent in inner-tubes clashed with this bizarre message that frankly sounded…kind of racist.

The myth begins with bad archaeology. Built between 1200 and 1400 CE, Great Zimbabwe once served as the capital of a complex local civilization in southeastern modern Zimbabwe. Its stone enclosures with walls up to 30 feet high were built without mortar and adorned with soapstone bird sculptures. The hilltop palace and surrounding city covered about 1800 acres, and could have housed more than 10,000 people. Untouched by European influence, Great Zimbabwe probably looked pretty impressive, rising above the grassland.

These people weren’t isolated. Excavations of the site turned up gold working equipment, ironware, pottery shards, Arab coins, Chinese porcelain, and Persian beads. Second hand stories from Arab traders eventually made their way to the ears of Portuguese explorers. Some thought it was Ophir, a biblical city built by the Queen of Sheba, or the seat of a mythological Christian ruler called Prester John…or even the location of King Solomon’s legendary mines.

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Hopes for a Messy Metaphorical Kitchen Counter

Image

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

When I was a teenager I enjoyed a lot of hot chocolate. On one occasion, after heating a mug of water in the microwave, I placed the mug on the counter, tore open a packet and, as soon as the Swiss Miss hit the water it boiled over. The counter was a literal hot mess as quick as I could say “Shit shit shit!”

My best guess for the cause is that the water was ready to boil but was too clean and the mug too smooth. It needed nucleation points — rough spots where a few molecules of gas could orient themselves and start to form bubbles. It’s the same as when carbon dioxide bubbles collect on the soda straw in your ginger ale, or the way a piece of dust or ash serves as a rough kernel upon which a snowflake forms. In my case, the sugar and chocolate dust in my Swiss Miss provided the necessary rough surfaces to allow the water to boil. And the word “dust” reminds me of a funny phrase: mote of dust.

Most of us would probably describe an individual dust particle as a fleck, a speck, or a bit of dust. I’ve only ever heard one man say “mote of dust.” Even when others use the phrase, they’re only quoting him. Him, as in Carl Sagan or, to some admirers, Carl. He was perhaps the greatest ambassador between science and the public who ever lived. In addition to being a NASA consultant for decades, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and much more, Sagan was the host of the 1980 public television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”

We who adore that television series simply call it “Cosmos” and, as anyone with an internet connection and the slightest geekiness knows, a preview for the show’s 2014 remake was released a couple weeks ago. They’re calling it “Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey,” and it’ll be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are some big differences between Sagan and Tyson, of course, the only notable one being that Tyson has a mustache and Sagan didn’t. But, in a way, that makes them similar because Tyson has a mustache when they’re not fashionable, whereas Sagan lacked a mustache when it WAS fashionable, or at least when Freddie Mercury made it seem fashionable.

Rock ‘n roll aside, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and has been orbiting the planet Saturn since 2004, took a few photos of Earth July 19 at a distance of almost 900 million miles (see photo above). That photo, of course, calls to mind a similar one taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft (below) in 1990 at a distance four times farther than the Cassini photo.

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NASA

The Voyager photo was advocated for by Carl Sagan himself, and served as the inspiration for the title of his book “Pale Blue Dot.” The Voyager photo remains the most distant ever taken of our planet, which takes us to Sagan’s famous phrase “…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” a phrase he delivered in the original “Cosmos” program.

I’ll not waste time or electronic ink fiddling with lofty ideas that are so much better articulated by others in recent days regarding the Cassini photo, the Voyager photo, or the reboot of “Cosmos.” Instead, I’ll summarize: the Voyager photo and the show “Cosmos” captured humanity’s insignificance as well as our connectedness to all of nature (that means space too). As Phil Plait noted in the caption of the Cassini photo on his Slate blog, “No human has ever ventured outside the frame of this picture.”

So there’s a theme here — Cosmos, Sagan, photo of earth — what of it? Well, it all got me thinking about something that I was, honestly, already thinking about because I’m thinking about it all the time. But despite all that thinking, others still say it so much better. For example, Rachel Edidin at Wired wrote a piece reacting to the Cosmos reboot and composed my thoughts far better than I could:

“As we face an all-out assault on science and the principles that inform it — a dogma-driven, results-focused culture of denial and institutionally reinforced ignorance, as we strip science curricula from schools and research funding from budgets — we need Cosmos more than ever. Carl Sagan’s Spaceship of the Imagination isn’t just a convenient metaphor. It’s an ark, whose trajectory has the potential to change the course of our culture, and, possibly, our future.”

But lets widen the scope of our timeline a little, keeping in mind my mug of hot water from the beginning.

We live in a world where China, Japan and other nations are making news with their respective increased participation in spaceflight and the development of space technology. Private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are also successfully joining the field of spaceflight, and the Mars One project has received tens of thousands of applications from people around the world interested in a one-way trip to establish a permanent settlement on the red planet in 2023. Those are all good things.

The Mars rover Curiosity landed a year ago (Aug. 6, 2012), has steadily made the news since, and is now en route to its destination, Mount Sharp. On this pile let’s toss the Chelyabinsk meteor that ripped across the skies of Russia in February, certainly providing the world with a reminder: while space is a thing to be explored, it also harbors immense threats to our way of life. Further still, we’re in or near the solar maximum, a story that has found its way to the cover of nearly every science magazine (see the Sept. 2013 issue of Astronomy Magazine) in the last couple years, along with non-science publications.

Do you feel the mug of water heating up? Is the stage set? I’m hopeful, and I’ll explain why.

Any human born in 1890 who reached the age of 80 lived through both the first flight of the Wright brothers and the first humans landing on the moon in their lifetime. My parents’ generation were born when color television hadn’t even arrived in the U.S., but that same generation can now watch whatever they want on smart phones, and can do so with higher resolution and more vibrant colors than was offered in the best televisions when even I was growing up. In short, I concede that the phrase “We live in a special time” has probably passed the lips of someone in every generation for the last several generations and, at the time, they were right. But I still believe that our time is different. Why? Because you can Google and watch video footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor in an instant. Or here’s a time-lapse of the first 100 days of the Curiosity rover on Mars:

What about a couple of time-lapse films from the International Space Station, here and here.

Videos like those are commonplace so what’s the big deal? Whether in Paris, London, Tokyo, Jakarta, Tehran, Beijing or almost anywhere else in the world, people with an internet connection can watch those videos and be inspired. Did immediate and broad access to such experiences exist 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago?

Yesterday morning I received an email telling me that the International Space Station would be visible over my town for a few minutes starting at 9:00 p.m. So I stopped writing this for 10 minutes and went outside to watched a spaceship the size of a football field silently cross the sky carrying three Americans, two Russians and an Italian. That’s the era we live in. Hell, I’m not special. Anyone can sign up for those email alerts.

So maybe the water is hot, or even ready to boil. But where’s our hot chocolate mix?

In late November, the mountain-sized and newly discovered Comet ISON will pass within 724,000 miles of our sun — if the distance from earth to the sun were a football field, the comet would be less than a yard from a touchdown — and after it passes the sun, hopefully blasted into high-visibility in the process, ISON might be the comet of a lifetime, meaning it could be visible during the day and outshine the full moon at night. It might also blossom into a sputtering nothing, but if it does put on a show the whole world will be unable to ignore ISON for days.

Finally, riding on that comet’s tail is “Cosmos: A Time-Space Odyssey,” which begins broadcasting in February.

Here’s the preview:

Yeah, it’s like that. A documentary, but with mad special effects, three decades of science updates and a side-order of badass. Could this change the world? Could Cosmos be the powdered hot chocolate mix that allows the water of global scientific curiosity to boil? At present, that remains as unknowable as Comet ISON’s winter performance.

I hope that you’ll not only watch Cosmos, but persuade your friends to do the same. Maybe it won’t be as ground-shaking as you or I hope, but we must give it a chance. Screw professional and college sports, boycott the reality shows, and let the sitcoms laugh at their own damn selves, because inspiration and awe about the universe are being served up on a silver platter. Not philosophy, myth or superstition, but facts about the nature of reality. Choosing to not watch suggests nothing better than that you don’t care about the future of humanity. And if that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before the feeling becomes mutual.

There. I said it.