What are we missing?

House Fire

A house on Edgewood Avenue (I think) north of Baltimore in 2009. A found story for a community newspaper reporter. More often than not, however, science writing offers few “found” news stories.

I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:

While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.

When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Rachel Carson and the Power of Science Writing

Is the pen mightier than the sword? Fifty years ago this month, one of those rare books was published that seems to have proven the famous saying true. Powerful industries opposed the book, but only succeeded in increasing its renown. President Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate; the commission reported that the author’s findings were correct. The book galvanized an environmental movement, led to laws and regulations that protected the country’s air and water, and brought treasured species like the bald eagle back from the edge of extinction.

The book, as you might have guessed, was Silent Spring, and the author Rachel Carson. Today we might wonder how such an influential writer could ever have emerged, but in the 1950s and ’60s Carson was a celebrity. And it wasn’t for writing scary books about pesticides; her main beat was the ocean. Carson became most famous for The Sea Around Us, which told the public about the stunning advances in scientists’ understanding of marine life. “With that book Carson not only became an international superstar, she became the most trusted voice in public science,” says Linda Lear, who wrote a biography of Carson. “She never wrote any article for the academic community. She wrote for the public, because she wanted the public to understand the world they lived in, the natural world.”

The Book of the Month Club edition of Silent Spring, with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s endorsement. Source: wikipedia

Carson was able to write authoritatively about science in part because she came from the academic science community; she earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Today she might have moved naturally over to that university’s science writing program (where my co-bloggers and I now reside) and launched her career that way, but in her day she was forced to blaze her own trail. She attempted freelancing, which was apparently no easier then than it is today, but also got herself noticed by the Bureau of Fisheries (now the US Fish and Wildlife Service), where she was hired to translate marine science into accessible prose. Though she excelled at this job and moved up through the government bureaucracy, she was also setting herself up for an independent writing career. “What she really wanted to do is publish her way out of government,” says Lear.

So Carson was a science writer who started out, like many, as a celebrator of science. But because of her scientific training, she recognized the dangers that certain scientific advances—especially those in atomic physics and chemistry—posed to the ecosystems she loved. However, Silent Spring is not anti-science; rather it uses science to questions humans’ use of scientific knowledge in the post-World War 2 period. In answering these questions, Carson makes full use of her prodigious writing skills, eloquently synthesizing the best government and academic science of her time.

It would be nice if we could say Carson’s pen had vanquished the overuse and misuse of toxic pesticides, but with a few notable exceptions like DDT, most of them are still around. And as anyone who reads the news knows, the world is awash in all kinds environmental threats—endocrine disruptors, farm runoff, greenhouse gases. So where are the next generation (or two) of Rachel Carsons—writers who bring a scientific issue to the public’s attention and inspire citizens and politicians to act? Nancy Langston, environmental historian and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says part of the problem is the sheer amount being written. “Every time another book comes out such as…Our Stolen Future—that was the first really popular account of endocrine disruptors—people say, ‘Oh, it’s the next Silent Spring,’ but there are dozens of these each year. And I think a lot of people get overwhelmed.”

I’m particularly curious what Carson would have done with climate change, the most pervasive environmental threat today. After all, many talented science writers have taken up their pens (or more likely their computer keyboards) in the hope of overcoming the ignorance and inertia surrounding this issue. One who stands out for me is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose brilliant book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (which, like Silent Spring, was first serialized in the New Yorker) places climate change in its terrifying, civilization-destroying historical context. But did Field Notes lead to a presidential commission? Has legislation been passed? Have most Americans even heard of this book? Unfortunately, the answer to all three of these questions seems to be no.

It isn’t the fault of Kolbert or any other writer. The industries and groups opposing action on climate change are far more organized and sophisticated than those Carson was up against. “With climate change this isn’t just a debate, there’s a well-oiled machinery that actively propagates doubt, and is invested in that, and is tied up in the fossil fuel industries, and in making sure that legislative inaction is perpetuated,” says Rob Nixon, an environmental writer and Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nixon does point to Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” where he writes that enough fossil fuel reserves are already on the books of major oil companies to warm the planet far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the limit of what scientists believe might not be catastrophic. McKibben “has committed himself very squarely to this topic, very single-mindedly, so I think he’s the closest we come” to Carson today, says Nixon. Without question, McKibben’s article earned a lot of attention; for a week or two I found myself in conversations about it almost daily. But only for a week or two. The article also has the danger of doing exactly the opposite of what he probably intended: making the problem look so massive, and the industries driving climate change so mighty, that there is nothing we who have only our pens can do.

So can we still earnestly go around saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? This famous line, from a now-obscure 19th-century play, encapsulates a sentiment that has probably given succor to many an idealistic writer, perhaps even Carson. And it would seem to follow that with the rise of the Internet and self-publishing, the daily avalanche of words would be enough to overpower any opposing force. But the opposite is true: with more words published than at any time before, each one seems to matter less. It’s hard to break through, and even harder to last: trending today, gone tomorrow. Will anyone recapture Carson’s gift for cutting through the fog? I don’t know, but for the sake of all members of the community of life, I certainly hope so.

* * *

Postscript: for my own amusement, I decided to try updating the famous line for the bureaucratic age. Let’s see if this proverb catches on: “Writing is a more effective means of advancing change than military action.”


Higgsmania

Without the Higgs Boson, we wouldn’t exist, and neither would our awful puns.

I was one of a lucky few at CERN this past Wednesday, when they announced the discovery of a shiny new particle that validates physicists’ best guess on the origin of mass. I won’t play it down: It was exhilarating, both to be present for a historical moment and to see years of hype reach a triumphant climax. I’m also a former political journalist and copy editor, now working as a science writer for a public information office. So I felt something peculiar: like I was watching science and storytelling collide from a neutral spot.

Unless you’ve been sleeping for two or three days, you’ve probably caught wind of the Higgs boson discovery news. But here’s a quick rundown just in case. The Higgs boson is a particle first proposed in the 1960s. Physicists have long had a hunch it’s there because the standard model of particle physics predicts it should be there, bestowing mass unto all the other particles. But it is impossible to see the Higgs directly, because it only exists for the fraction of a fraction of a blink of an eye.

The only way to pinpoint the Higgs is to look for what it decays into — for simplicity’s sake think of decaying as a transformation. But there are a lot of other particles that are unstable like the Higgs and decay really fast. These particles often decay into the same particles the Higgs decays into. So the wild world of decaying particles is full all sorts of ruckus and noise, making the Higgs really difficult to find. Physicists have to calculate the details of the noise so they can filter it out and find anything hiding inside — like you might use a sieve (hey!) to find gold nuggets in the dirt.

So the scientists sifted out all the Higgs-impersonators and found a bump in the remaining data from a particle that looks a hell of a lot like the Higgs ought to look. It walks like a Higgs. It quacks like a Higgs. It must be the Higgs! Right?

Probably. But it could be a variation on Higgs boson that isn’t exactly like the standard model predicts. They have yet to find out. But one thing is for certain, they’ve got a new particle and it fits the Higgs picture. And even if it doesn’t fit nice and snuggly into the standard model, it’s still something new, interesting and Higgslicious.

I was there for the announcement because I currently work at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, a research institute in Italy that helps scientists from developing countries. They also have some researchers working on the ATLAS project, one of the Large Hadron Collidor’s detectors. So they sent me to CERN for the big news event.

The heads of several CERN physicists gathered and watching the announcement that both detectors have found a new particle on a projection screen. Seats in the seminar room itself were in high demand.

From what the CERN physicists told me, the previous few hours had resembled the madness surrounding the opening of a blockbuster movie. Some scientists even camped out overnight outside the seminar room to get the best seats for the big announcement. Everyone who wasn’t willing to sacrifice their comfort to that extreme had to watch the seminar from elsewhere on the CERN site. That’s where I wound up. I joined a pack of about 150 young physicists gathered in one of several basement rooms to watch the seminar on a projector screen. When each detector project revealed the Higgsy-looking bump in their data, the room burst into hooting and applause. So did the official seminar room where the hardcore Higgs fans were watching. It was about as close to the Super Bowl as physics can get.

When the seminar was done I migrated to the press conference. Even if you’re not into physics in particular, but curious about the relationship between science and journalism, I recommend you watch it. For one thing, you’ll see an excellent cross-section of questions ranging from thoughtful to pretty weak. You’ll also see the somewhat-differing interests of science journalists and scientists at play. Up on stage were the folks who want the discovery to be known as precisely as possible. Out in the crowd were the folks who want to tell a good, important, enticing story to their audiences.

Media swarmed around Peter Higgs, the man the boson is named for, before the press conference began. As you can probably tell by now, I’m very good at taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads.

The strangest moment is when a reporter asks, “For the other laymen out there, about SIX BILLION OF THEM, what does this mean?” (I’m pretty sure he hit a mental caps lock key as he was speaking.) There was also the dreaded justify-your-funding question, a brief appearance by the graviton, some questions about what’s next, and a little (perfectly fair) pleading to Peter Higgs to say something, anything to quote.

The “God Particle” term also made its inevitable appearance as part of a general question asking for more metaphors. My favorite part of the whole press conference was CERN physicist Joe Incandela’s response: “I don’t know that I have metaphors exactly. But as I said before the interesting thing about this particle is it’s different from any other. It has a different place. It actually has a relationship to the state of the universe, and so it’s very profound.”

The funny thing is, watch the video, and you’ll see that several metaphors get lobbed out there before the question even came up.  As science writers it’s easy to love metaphors. They have a poetic quality, and they are a direct route to bridging the gap between the technical stuff and familiar things. But sometimes we love them too much. The wise thing to recognize here was that any more metaphors would have been gratuitous. Sometimes, to say something simply, all you really need to do is say it simply.