Archive for March 2008

Program Notes: Who Patented the Bomb? Ask NPR.

March 30, 2008

Check this story out.

Here’s the backstory: Otto Hahn, (without mentioning mentor/partner Lise Meitner) published the news that he and co-workers had identified the element Barium in a sample of Uranium that had been bombarded by neutrons in December, 1938. Meitner, of Jewish background, had of necessity, abandoned her collaboration with Hahn and escaped for Stockholm earlier that year.

Still, she and her nephew, understood what had just happened. Hahn had achieved nuclear fission, the spectacularly unexpected splitting of uranium atoms.

By the happenstance of timing, this news came at almost the final moment for the next seven years that scientific communication would pass freely through the physics community. It was certainly almost the last time that a crucial result about the behavior of the atom would be so blithely broadcast to any and all…

…Or not quite, as the NPR broadcast linked above reveals. I’ve done a bit of reporting on atomic physics and the history of the bomb — not much, but not zero, either — and I never caught a whiff of the fact that the Manhattan Project filed something like 2,000 — two thousand!– patents on every angle they could find of design and engineering of the atomic bomb.

Patents are public documents, as the hero of the NPR story, Harvard graduate student Alex Wellerstein noted. National security can intervene — but even when it does, a secret patent leaves traces behind, decay products as it were. As the story explains, should someone else — a German agent — want to know if America were working on a bomb, all he would have to do is file a patent application of his own on some aspect of nuclear weaponry, and a letter would come back saying, in essence, the proposed invention had collided with a secret patent. Aha!

That never happened.

Do give the story a listen. It’s well done, and can be heard as a sidelight on the strangeness and the paranoia that accompanies every descent into a national security state.

But what gave me the most pleasure was hearing Philip Morrison remembered. Morrison had told Wallerstein that he had in fact filed a patent on the bomb (one that is still secret), and had signed his rights over to the US government for the princely sum of a buck year — which was never paid.

I’m pretty sure that Morrison never tried to collect. I knew him a bit — never that well, but for a few years, his role as advisor to NOVA meant that I would see him and his wife Phyllis on regular occasions. He was a genuinely great man, and the one time, the Morrisons came to my house for supper, I finally got my courage up to ask him what it was like to carry the plutonium core from Los Alamos to Almogodoro for the Trinity test.

He started speaking with a kind of a creak, as if he was resetting his mind to re-enter, and not just recall the event. And then the story took over, and my wife and I just listened as the drive unfolded, and Morrison started bringing to life the feeling, the combination of youth (Morrison was all of twenty nine years old), mastery, urgency — get the damn war done — and concern to make sure the damn thing worked.

Morrison is one of the unequivocally great figures I’ve had the good fortune to meet, smart, committed to right action, a small d democrat in all his doings — he’d talk with pleasure to anyone who was willing to exercise their brains. He became a major figure in the physicists’ movement working to defang the nuclear threat.

But he never hid the fascination and the sheer intensity of emotion and experience that came with working on the Manhattan Project. Sitting there around a dinner table, just the four of us, listening to the journey re-imagined — the guts of the bomb in his hands. Amazing. It was a moment when being a historian seem like the most fun it is possible to have, as so many lives and instants of place and time can, at lucky intervals, suddenly become imaginatively one’s own.

I’m still grateful to Phil (and Phyllis, who should never be left out of any memory of the Morrisons). He was kind to me and very helpful more than once. He deeper relations with and made a much greater impact on lots of other folks, and I don’t want to claim more of an acquaintance nor more influence from than was really there. But hearing a very nice bit of radio reminded me that I’d never acknowledged the real debt I owe him, and the great pleasure I took in the times I did get to hear what he had to say.

(Some other time, I’ll talk about an after dinner talk I heard him give to a very small and bumptious group of TV people who thought they knew about what mattered in 20th century science until they heard Phil’s defense of 1900.)

One last thing – a minor quibble with the NPR story. The story of the American patents on the bomb is, I think, genuinely new. But the broadcast did not mention something known for a while, and discussed in Richard Rhodes’ great book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Leo Szilard had been thinking about the possibility of nuclear chain reactions well before Hahn et al. achieved uranium fission. In 1936, living in Britain, he patented the idea — and assigned it to the Admirality to make sure that the weapon implied (obviously, it seemed to him) by the phenomenon would remain secret.

Image: Albin Schmalfuss, Boletus luridus, 1897. Source: Wikimedia Commons

More on Torture, McCain, Sullivan, with some help from Albert Einstein

March 28, 2008

It’s Friday, the traditional blogospheric day for ephemera (that is to say, even more evanescent stuff than usual). I know that this is supposed to be a science-y blog, and what I’m going to write below has exactly zero disciplinary rigor in it. It is a personal note, a follow up to last night’s post on Andrew Sullivan’s inability to grasp what John McCain’s torture dance implies. Feel free to move along.

I finished that post in a very quiet house, around 11:30. My wife and son were asleep; almost all the lights were out; it was just me and the keyboard.

After writing, I thought I’d make the quick dash to join my much more sensible family in horizontality. But I didn’t. Instead, I walked up and down, angrier and angrier.

Thinking about McCain’s dance, opposing torture until he didn’t brought me to the larger problem. People are buying it. Sullivan, at least temporarily, has bought it — and take a look at the first comment on the post for the implications of that kind of acquiescence in the unforgivable.

Round and round I went. My son was still asleep. At the age he is now, my America did not torture. His does. I cannot stand that fact.

As I said, this is not a political blog, though I am fascinated by what science can tell us to inform our politics and our culture. I’m not going to tell anyone for whom to vote. Figure it out for yourselves.

I’ll close with a story, a true one, something I saw when I was the downiest of cub reporters.

My first real news gig came in my first year after graduating from college. I had made my way overseas — and after 6 on the road I had come to Manila.

By odd happenstance, the local Reuters bureau needed bodies and copy so I was “hired” for bus and lunch money. Didn’t matter: I was now a foreign correspondent, with a line to the wire to damn anyone who dared say no.

I covered the usual stuff cubs get — my first phone call really was to ask for a reaction to the murder of a peace corps volunteer . (For those of you not familiar with the hazing rituals of old journalism, an awful lot of reporters got their start asking a brand new widow how she felt. How the hell do you think she felt, asshole?)

I covered a threatened jeepney strike, a coral reef conference — I even got a tour of the Coconut Palace (don’t ask) led by Imelda Marcos herself. It was great, a fabulous way to start becoming a writer.

A couple of months in, Easter rolled around and so my bureau chief sent me out to get a kind of local-color feature for the Asian wire.

Some friends invited me out to their parents’ place, a bit north of Manila. On the way there, we passed some men dressed in rags, carrying wooden crosses across the plain. On Good Friday, three of those cross bearers came to a parish church near where we were staying. One collapsed before his moment arrived. The other two laid their crosses down in the dust and heat and settled themselves into position.

Friends tied their ankles and wrists. Then a man reached for a mallet and hammered nails through each palm. Some strong guys stood the two crosses up. Those being crucified tried to stand as straight as possible to minimize the weight pulling on their arms and hands. They held the pose for a minute or two — not long — and then their friends and family lowered them down again.

I spoke to one of the two resurrected men who was wrapping gauze around his palm as we talked. He had been a member of a youth gang, he said, and he had done unspecific terrible things. He wanted to start over, and this was how he wiped his slate clean. After his moments on the cross, he was calm, satisfied. Fine: good for him. I don’t know. I haven’t seen him from that day to this – 27 years – but I hope it worked out.

I rarely recall that moment. I didn’t think about it last week, when the anniversary might have brought it to mind. But I did last night, wrestling with the anger and shame I felt at the thought of the acts my government performs in my name.

I’m not any kind of a Christian. But remembering that church yard north of Manila reminded me of the brute fact at the core of the Christian story: the man Jesus was tortured to death on his cross. He was brutalized, pierced, felt the metal tearing at his flesh, suffered the pain in his hands and legs that deepened as his own strength failed and he could no longer keep his body from pulling on the spikes through his limbs.

Good Friday came and went a week ago. Believers celebrated its joyful sequel just a few days back.

I’ll let my long-time companion, Albert Einstein have the last thought, taken from one of his very first anti-war essays, written during World War I:

“Why so many words,” he wrote, “when I can say it in one sentence, one very appropriate for a Jew: Honor your master Jesus Christ not only in words and songs but rather, foremost, by your deeds.”*

My apologies to anyone who read this far and is offended either by my presumption, or the wildly off topic nature of the post.

*Albert Einstein “My Opinion on the War,” from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, vol. VI, document 20.

Images: Torture Chair on display in the Torture Museum in Amsterdam. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Lucas Cranach, “Crucifixion,” c. 1500. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

This Might Be a Good Day for Andrew Sullivan…

March 27, 2008

to stop sniffing glue — or whatever it is that impels him to write stuff like this:

I am still open to supporting McCain this fall, primarily because of character and decency. Hagee and Falwell should not be ignored; but nor should they be dispositive.

This is supposed to be a science blog. So the one point I’d like to draw out here is that Sullivan offers here a case study why training in scientific thinking matters far beyond science.

Here goes:

Sullivan has been one of the earliest and most persistent defenders of the right of gay men and women to marry. Not to form partnerships, nor gain legal protections through some contractual basis, nor even gain all the qualities of marriage but the name under the euphemism of “civil unions,” but marry.

Good for him. He’s absolutely right on this issue, in my humble opinion. (You can tell I really mean that because I committed the intertube faux pas of spelling the words all the way out.) But then what about this:

Sen. John McCain said Thursday that he supports an initiative that would change Arizona’s Constitution to ban gay marriages and deny government benefits to unmarried couples.

It gets more painful when you watch him trying to talk his way through his reasoning. Watch this:

The first thirty seconds there should put paid to any “Straight Talk” nonesense. The poor man cannot bear to confront this head on.

So: the score so far: McCain opposes what Sullivan and I agree is a basic civil right, and he does so with an incoherence that suggests an essential weakness of character.

That is: he does not on the evidence (his prior opposition to a Federal ban on gay marriage) actually hate the idea of same sex unions, but he is unwilling to follow the logic that leads him there to a position that would, most likely, kill his chances of being President. I can understand the pressure he feels must be intense — but this stand together with the at-least-partial flip-flop hardly commends McCain’s courage or the quality of his convictions.

Then there’s the issue of torture. This matters enormously to Sullivan, to his credit, and he has written passionately condemning it and all those associated with the Bush administration who have furthered the official endorsement of the practice as legitimate US policy.

John McCain, for his part, famously experienced torture as a prisoner of war. In his five and half years of captivity, he displayed reserves of courage and personal integrity that earns him an enormous reserve of respect, certainly from me.

But — as Sullivan knows — McCain has still served as the leading enabler of the policy of torture enacted under the Bush administration.

For example, having very publicly made a point of “challenging” Bush on torture with the 2005 “McCain Amendment,” the Senator then acquiesced silently to claim made in the following signing statement:

“The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.”

Which is another way of saying that this President reserves the right to torture.

McCain has since gone further with his vote to permit the CIA to waterboard and use other methods of torture first when he opposed the proposed ban in February, and then again when he supported Bush’s veto of the legislation on March 8.

McCain has stated clearly that he knows waterboarding to be torture. His former position of opposing torture by the US seems to have mutated to one of opposing it except when carried out in secret by trained pros. It is both a dumb and a morally bankrupt position, as Sullivan has himself argued in other contexts.

So has he no sense of decency, sir? What kind of character does it take to choose support for a President over conscience and bitter personal experience?

But of course, this post is not about the gap between the John McCain as the man wishes to be seen and the John McCain that is really there. It’s about Andrew Sullivan, standing in for a host of others who fail to examine that gap.

Sullivan abhors torture. McCain was tortured and has said he hates torture. Therefore, McCain stands on the side of decent men and women in actively opposing the use of torture…how could it be otherwise? Except it is.

And so, finally, to close the loop: this is why learning to think like a scientist matters beyond science.

Elsewhere I’ve trumpted the virtues of one half of the scientific approach to reality, its use of quantitative abstraction to isolate patterns and to draw inferences across disparate observations. Here’s the other half: science is empirical. It demands observation and experiment, and the gathering of reliable, testable data.

That’s what it takes to begin figuring out more or less anything, from the correct shape of the orbits of the planets (Kepler, working with Brahe’s incomparable data set), to artificial selection as an analogy to evolution by natural selection (Darwin, among the pigeon fanciers), to the causes of a mass extinction, 65 million years ago (Luis and Walter Alvarez measuring iridium abundances at the K/T boundary) and so on and on.

If you want to take Pete Townsend’s advice to heart, that is, you have to force yourself to look past what you imagine or hope might be out there, and address yourself directly to the real world of experience.

So, when you don’t want to get fooled again as Sullivan did (by his own admission) by George W. Bush, then you have to ask yourself some basic questions, including, “is my perception of John McCain (0r Barack Obama, or whoever) based on the knowable facts of his career?” Ask the same question a scientist asks when she wants to know if what she believes is so really is so.

Sullivan hasn’t, and maybe he can’t do that. He’s clearly got a lot invested in a fantasy of McCain’s tough, fair, manly good character. But it is a terrible error to let yourself believe the truth is what you so desperately wishes it were. Dreamers, fools and bankrupts rise and mostly fall on that kind of thinking. So can countries.

Bonus video:

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán, 1639. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Stupidity Kills: McCain/Vaccination edition.

March 25, 2008

As promised, a post about this story. In my previous post, I asked what was missing from this seemingly straightforward bit of science/medical reporting about a growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of fears that vaccines are unsafe.

The answer: a couple of things.

First, the piece had lots of numbers, but very little in the way of useful, contextual quantitative analysis.

For example, it would have been nice to know the ratio of the risk of serious complications of the vaccine to risk of the disease itself. That is, after all, the crux of most of the argument vaccine exempters make.

Second, the piece refers to the herd immunity concept, but never explains it — which is crucial, because the public health question (as opposed to the child abuse one) turns on the point at which refusal to immunize creates a big enough unvaccinated habitat in which a given illness starts to pose a risk to folks other than those who have chosen to risk disease rather than a shot.

Make no mistake — this piece does document, however imperfectly, a real problem. It catches the essence of the stupidity on the march in our rich, unprecedentedly healthy society in this passage:

It is the absence, or close to it, of some illnesses in the United States that keep some parents from opting for the shots. Worldwide, 242,000 children a year die from measles, but it used to be near one million. The deaths have dropped because of vaccination, a 68 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.”

But the third, and the real point of this post, is that there is a really big hole in the NY Times story: nowhere does the author mention that a current candidate for the Presidency of the United States has very recently made this problem worse.

Last month, John McCain said the following, according to ABC News:

“It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the matter, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

There is, of course, precisely the opposite of “strong evidence” that the vaccines cause autism. The NYT piece did point to the vaccine/autism panic as one wellspring for the movement to avoid vaccination, writing this:

Alexandra Stewart, director of the Epidemiology of U.S. Immunization Law project at George Washington University, said many of these parents are influenced by misinformation obtained from Web sites that oppose vaccination.

“The autism debate has convinced these parents to refuse vaccines to the detriment of their own children as well as the community,” Ms. Stewart said.

You would think that the fact that someone running for President is spouting the same myth, would register here. It has been less than a month since McCain exposed either his ignorance or his willingness to pander to an angry voter.

Whatever the source of his remarks, they provide direct demonstration of how credulity and intellectual sloth undermine science — and in this case, directly contribute to an evolving public health threat. It’s not good journalism to ignore elephants like this hanging around the edges of your story.

Beyond that: we’ve been lucky so far.

Measles is rare now, and likely to stay so in North America.

But outbreaks will continue to occur, and one may hit in an unlucky pocket of susceptibility to the diesease.

Meanwhile, other diseases have been getting more common. Pertussis, (aka whooping cough, for readers of a certain age), the “P” in the DPT shot is on the rise, with incidence rising fifteen fold in the last quarter-century, to over 25,000 cases in the US in 2004.

Sometime, probably not that far off, a kid or kids are going to die of entirely preventable illness because someone thought it was too damn risky to immunize their children.

Maybe they heard Senator McCain tell them that credible scientists thought so too. He should know better. And if he doesn’t know, then he should recognize his ignorance, and shut the hell up.

In my dreams.

Image: Louis-Léopold Boilly, “L’innoculation,” 1807. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

(I think I have used this picture in an earlier post, but it works so well here, so why not?)

(Stolen Tag Line alert): The Way We Live Now

March 25, 2008

Read this. (h/t Grace).

Partly, this is just to wallow in the horror of the contemporary mediastream.

But this is, obliquely, another response to Sean Carroll’s advice to scientists confronting science journalists.  My sober reaction to that post can be found below, but the horror contained in Gene Weingarten’s ordeal gets at the much bigger problem facing public communication of science.

Who the hell is going to hear it amidst all that noise?

That’s certainly a problem for science on TV, something with which I’ve had some experience.  When I started at NOVA in 1986, there were, really, just four networks:  the commercial webs and PBS.  On PBS, at least two, and often more of the fifteen weekday primetime hours were devoted to science.  Not a lot — but actually visible in the schedule.  Throw in a couple more on average, what with specials and limited series, and you’d get something like 4 hours per 60 for all four national broadcast soures as a minimum.

Now, with my cheapest-possible-digital cable, I have about 60 channels at my disposal.  None of them, with one possible exception, are all-science channels.  Except for my local PBS outlet, very few run much science or tech at all.  The signal to noise ratio has gotten much worse in 20-odd years, and even PBS  has seen an erosion of its high profile science portfolio.

And so on.  The litany of lost print jobs for science writers is an old one.  The science blogosphere is a help, an entirely new source of science news and opinion — but I’ll offer the heresy that pull media has more impact on its users and less impact on the culture than ubiquitous push offerings.  (I.e. — those who trouble to read blog posts get a lot out of them; but a nationally broadcast series like Cosmos has the ability to change thinking in a much more culture-moving way because it reachs people who do not self select in the same way.)

All of which is a long way round to saying, somewhat glumly, that to some extent the good advice that Sean provides, and the various addenda with which his commenters enriched the stew seem to me on bad days like rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic.  On good days, it makes me think that we actually need to conceive of our stories somewhat differently.  For an example I’ll blog about as soon as I move my book revision forward some:  take this article from Friday’s NYT, about resistance to childhood vaccination, and ask yourself what’s missing from this not-bad report?

Image: Pieter Breugel the Elder, “Tower of Babel,” 1563.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging (Monday edition): Isaac solves the subprime mess.

March 24, 2008

We are in a mess. How bad is it? I don’t know — but when the Fed et al. race to make sure that the most significant housing lenders in this country are less fiscally sound than they were last week, all to pump some extra dollars into the mortgage market, you know it ain’t good.

What to do? Why, suggests Tim over at Balloon Juice, let’s get the right man for the job:

Isaac Newton, of course.

Tim was joking, I think, but in fact Newton would be a more appropriate choice than just about any other physicist I could name. England in the late seventeenth century experienced a financial revolution as well as its more famous scientific one. Newton took part in both.

For example — he was among the great and the good whose advice was sought on what to do about the disappearance of England’s silver coinage in 1695 — along with such luminaries as John Locke, Charles Davenant and Christopher Wren.

Then, beginning the next year, first as Warden and then Master of the Royal Mint, he became a significant, if not the dominant player in the transformation of England’s money system from a silver to a de-facto gold denominated pound.

More to Tim’s point, Isaac Newton took up his role in England’s nascent financial bureaucracy at a time of wild, uncontrolled, truly exuberant financial engineering. This was a time when the English government’s attempts to fund a wildly expensive overseas military adventure (the Nine Years War) stretched to include licensing the issue of tickets that were at once (a) high-interest bonds (what might later be known as junk), backed by a stream of government tax revenue on malt, the key raw ingredient in making beer;* (b) entries in a lottery, offering chances to win up to a 1,000 pounds against a ten pound ticket; and (c) paper money.

As another excessively premature plug — I cover all this in my book on Newton as a currency cop, coming out early next year. But for now the point is that Newton was not only present while all this happened. He was in fact a fairly senior civil servant working for a government struggling to figure out how to fund and foster a transforming economy. He was a pretty smart guy too, I hear, and he thought in some detail about questions of credit, government control, and probity in financial dealings.

He came to a lot of quite sensible conclusions about the new paper instruments, and the proper role of debt and credit: “If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work..the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.” Keynes forshadowed, anyone?

And then there is this: “Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon money; we value it because with it we can purchase all sorts of commodities and the same opinion sets a like value upon paper security….All the difference is…that the value of the former is more universal than that of the latter.”**

Interest is certainly heading low enough for the advantages of American export trade. (evanescing dollar, anyone? I’m only complaining as one who just had to wire a fee for a researcher in London). We still have a way to go to set the poor on work, but at least Newton had that as one of his priorities, which is more than I can say for some, on the evidence. And certainly, the interesting times (in the Chinese sense) we are living in confirms the truth of the observation of the relationship of opinion and value.

But even though Newton could see what many others could not about the essentially abstract nature of money, he was not entirely immune to the confusion — or perhaps to baseline human desires — triggered by half-comprehended new notions of finance. His first investment in the South Sea Company paid off, when he sold on the rise.

But even though there could have been no other man in England better placed to grasp the mathematical implications of the unfolding scheme — he still bought back into the madness of the bubble year, 1720.

He lost, by his heirs’ estimate, some 20,000 pounds — a prodigious sum, a fortune.*** It’s hard to gauge what that means across such gaps of time, but using the Parliamentary research service’s estimate of inflation across that time, a rough guesstimate leads to the conclusion that the smartest man in Europe blew the modern equivalent of better than three million pounds on a “greater fool” dynamic of what had become, in the end, a fairly straight forward pump-and-dump stock fraud.

Newton had succumbed to greed, or perhaps the simple impetus of the common mania — but which ever it was, it still overcame both his capacity to think quantitatively (Newton!) and any prudential impulse. After all, he was rich already. He didn’t need to risk much to gain much: when he died, seven years after the bubble year, he still left a fortune of 30,000 pounds, not counting his land in Lincolnshire.

The moral of the story: This is why you need to regulate financial markets. No one, not even the cleverest, is immune to all the familiar temptations of money in flux. No wise man remains wise always; one of the most reliable inducers of folly is the possibility of gains that seem to repeal financial laws of gravity. Rules that are no respecters of persons are there to save even the Isaac Newtons among us from themselves.

*More crucial than you might think given that weak beer was the staple fluid in a society where the water supply looked like this.

**Both quotes taken from Newton’s Mint papers, and published in G. Findlay Shirras and John Craig, “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency,” in Economic History. Subscription required.

***It’s not quite clear from the record exactly what Newton lost in the bubble. The suggestion is that he lost an investment of 20,000 pounds, but this seems unlikely, given what is known about Newton’s income throughout his career. More likely, and the more popular interpretation among Newton scholars, is that Newton converted into South Sea stock debt instruments with a total, long term future value at that rather grand number. In other words, he didn’t lose tens of thousands in cold cash; rather, he gave up income that could have added up to very satisfying amounts over time. Still a lot of money, but not the stunning out-of-pocket disaster the raw number implies.

Images: Quentin Massys, “Der Goldwäger und seine Frau,” 1591. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

South Sea Bubble Card, 1720. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A bit more unsolicited advice

March 23, 2008

Sean Carroll — the Cosmic Variance one — has a very useful post up on how scientists should engage the press. Most pleasing from where I sit (as the transducer, not the source of the signal) Sean makes it clear that there are two sides to every missed connection between a story as the scientist imagines it and the one that some reporter actually puts out to the public. It can’t hurt to have your own, in-house and top-shelf science writer to remind you that there are obligations to be met by both parties to the conversation.

The whole post is good advice, more or less must reading for any scientist who finds him/herself on the business end of a microphone or a notebook. Here, I just want to underline a couple of Sean’s points.

1: Story. Scientists may not feel that their work falls into a narrative, but there is no coverage without a story, which means, for the most part, there is no coverage without a character for whom the events being narrated have some consequence. Not all characters are human, to be sure. An experiment, or a difficult observation, or nature itself can take on the role of antagonist. But somewhere at the center of a tale that works in public telling is a human protagonist. Good writers are always looking for that person, and a scientist thinking that the work speaks for itself is one of the ways that encounters between writers and researchers can end in tears.

2: There is a difference between education and exposition. Science writers do the latter when necessary; they commit the former, as Sean says, by accident — or rather as a pleasing by-product of an effort to entertain and/or intrigue. The goal of good writing is to move people, to create an emotional effect, a moment of aesthetic pleasure, a sensation of intellectual engagement.

Education in the traditional sense is not part of that brief. I’ve emphasized elsewhere on this blog the distinction between a scientific worldview and scientific literacy. Something of that sort is what I think Sean is talking about in this part of his post, and it is a view I entirely endorse. Whatever facts readers learn as they encounter any given story are fine, but they are secondary to experiencing the thrill of a good story — of allowing those same readers to feel as if they are eavesdropping on someone in the midst of figuring something out about how the material world actually works. (There are lots of other tropes in science writing, of course, but that’s a big one, and I think you get the idea.)

3. One specific piece of advice I’d add to Sean’s list is to remember that writers are usually on deadlines — and those deadlines bite.

If you want to influence the course of a story, you’ve got to (a) understand the time constraint that your reporter faces and (b) act on that knowledge. Know when you have to get back to someone on a fact check, for example — for if you do not respond before galleys are locked (or the website goes live, for those of you actually living in the 21st century), then you are out of luck. And then the journalist will feel aggrieved, with at least some cause, when you send a bitter note about how badly yet another science writer has messed up your field.

4. Beyond all this, I’d just like to underline in thick pencil Sean’s exhortation to his colleagues to take an active role in the scientist-journalist exchange.

But listen as well as speak. It’s OK to press someone on what they think their story is about. If she — if I — have something wrong, or just stupid, then fine, say so and argue the point as vigorously as necessary.

But if he is, (if I am) doing something that makes sense on its own terms, but just isn’t the story you would have done — then think about what you can achieve within the framework of that story. Baldly telling someone that they should do something other than they are, or have been commissioned to do is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.

I had an experience not too long ago that ran into this conflict. I published an article in February 2006 in Discover about the Giant Magellan Telescope project. The hook for the piece was Carnegie Observatories’ director Wendy Freedman’s gamble: casting the first of seven primary mirrors for the instrument without having the money in hand to complete the project.

That hook left an important player largely to one side: the University of California/Caltech/Canadian Universities Thirty Meter Telescope team. When I went to speak with key members of that project, they tried to persuade me to emphasize their effort instead, or at least to describe it in parallel with the GMT. But the story as Discover and I had worked it out was not first about a race between the two projects to build the next generation of large optical telescopes; rather, it focused on what the GMT’s gamble could tell our readers about the way big, risky scientific projects actually work.

I did make mention of the TMT in the piece — just not with the kind of parallel priority that those working on the project felt they merited. They were miffed; I hope they’ve gotten over it by now — for that’s the last turn to this particular sermon:

There is always another story.

Which is to say: if you don’t get what you want out of one go-round, help the writer (if he or she is someone you think is worth trying to work with over time) to be prepared (and eager) for the next conversation.

If you care enough, become a source — someone who establishes relationships with trusted reporters over time. Sources catalyze stories. They have enormous influence over what gets written. (Though beware: as usual they run the risk of suffering the inevitable reward of all good deeds as well.)

Image: Jang Seungeop, “Jeon telling a story” mid-late nineteenth century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


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