Archive for the ‘science writing’ category

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Tonight!c

November 3, 2015

So it’s here — Publication Day! The Hunt for Vulcan is now live.

There’s a bit of backstory on how the book came to be over at Gizmodo. Spoiler alert: Ta-Nehisi Coates bears part of the blame.

More backstory on Einstein’s role in all this here.

And last, tonight (in an hour and a half actually) this:


If that doesn’t read too well: I’ll be talking about the book with my colleague, the wonderful physicist and historian of science David Kaiser at 6 p.m. We’ll be at the MIT Museum — free and open to the public.

If you can’t make it, there will be alternatives.

And with that: shameless self promotion at least temporarily brought to a halt.

For A Good Time In Cambridge (This Thursday)

October 6, 2015

Yo! Local Juicers — if you’ve reserved Thursday evening for watching paint dry, I have an alternative.

I’m going to be moderating a really excellent iteration of the MIT Communications Forum — this time co-sponsored by our city-wide celebration Hub Week.

I’ll be very lightly riding herd on Annalee Newitz and Charles C. Mann as they wonder about how (and whether) study of the past can help us prepare for the future — with the possibility of apocalypse included.


Both are wonderful writers and thinkers.  Annalee was the founding editor of io9, and is now Gizmodo’s Grand Poobah.  She’s written Scatter, Adapt and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was, inter alia, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She’s at work now on a history of the city (and its possible future) — and more besides.

Charles  has been producing erudite and elegant science writing for yonks*. He’s perhaps best known for 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus which won the the National Academies of Sciences Keck award as best popular science book of the year.  He followed that up with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Createdand is at work now on The Wizard and the Prophet, which he describes as a book about the future which makes no predictions. (Yogi would approve.)

Time:  5-7 p.m., Thursday, October 8.

Place:  MIT Building 3, room 270.  Interactive map here.

PS:  If you’re into some long distance planning, I’ve got a couple of events coming up in support of my long-teased new book, The Hunt for Vulcan: and how Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe.  The book is timed to the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, which he completed in November, 1915, and it gets to that striking moment through a marvelous oddity of a story from 19th century solar-system astronomy, the repeated discovery of a planet that should have existed, but didn’t.  The appearance and then vanishing of the planet Vulcan is not just a curiosity, (or so it seems to me), as its history reveals a great deal about what it takes for science really to change under the pressure of inconvenient fact.

Anyway — the book comes out on Tuesday, November 3, and we are in the midst of planning a launch event at the MIT Museum.  That will most likely run from 6-7:30, with details to come soon.

Then, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be doing a reading and signing at my local:  Brookline Booksmith.  Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

*Yonks being a unit of measure of time roughly equal to more than you thought.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

We Are (Mostly) Star Dust

January 17, 2015

Have some brain-food-fun this a.m., courtesy of a friend of mine, Ben Lillie, recovering physicist and the man behind the lovely Story Collider effort.  Here he gives a TEDx talk on element number 3, lithium, an audio essay ranging from Evanescence (the band, not the property) to the universe and back to human nature.  Enjoy:

Don’t know about you, but every now and then I need a complete break from the not-funny comedy that is current US politics.  This worked a treat for me.
Any great science popular media among your favorites?  That’s what comments are for.

Quick Heads Up For Some Spooky Action At A Distance Talk

July 30, 2014

Late, late, late I am in getting this out to you, but I’m doing another webcast/podcast for Virtually Speaking Science today.

I’ll be talking to my MIT colleague, David Kaiser, who is a physicist and a historian of science in our Science Technology and Society program.  He’s also an excellent popular science writer, and we’ll use the hour today (and whenever you might choose to listen) to talk Higgs, Bicep2 and gravitational waves (did the very early universe inflate? Are there butt-loads of universes?  How freaking hard is it to make cosmological measurements?*).  And we’ll talk about his wonderful book How the  Hippies Saved Physics — about the Fundamental Fysics group at Berkeley and their engagement with quantum entanglement, Bell’s theorem, spooky action at a distance and the discovery that yup, the universe does behave that strangely…which is why we are now, almost 50 years later, thinking seriously about quantum computing, encryption and the like:  actual this-world technologies that exploit properties that Albert Einstein thought no properly behaved universe should exhibit.


David’s a great explainer — so the opaque shorthand above will become much clearer very soon.  We go on the air at 6 ET — half an hour from now.  Listen here live or later (also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science and or Levenson and Kaiser) — or join us as part of the virtual studio audience in Second Life, hosted by my favorite (as in, my childhood) science center, San Franciso’s Exploratorium.

*Spoiler:  Very, very hard.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby,  An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.


The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel edition

December 18, 2013

It’s the third Wed. of the month again (remarkable how that comes around), and I’ll once more be doing my internet radio thing on Virtually Speaking Science (a program within the Virtually Speaking empire that recently featured our own Richard Mayhew in conversation with Jay Ackroyd).

This evening at 5 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m./PT, I’ll be talking with Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.  (We’ll also be live in Second Life at the Exploratorium’s joint.  Come join the live studio audience if you’ve got that kind of virtual bent.)


As many of you I’m sure know, it’s been a tumultuous couple of months in the science writing world. Since October, we’ve seen Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a researcher and blogger at get called an “urban whore” for the sin of politely declining to write for free — and then have her equally polite explanation why that’s not OK deleted on spurious pretences by a Scientific American editorial staff who thus, effectively silenced an African American woman trying to let the world know this sh*t still goes on — every damn day.  You can listen to Lee herself on all of this as part of the invaluable Story Collider series of tales of science and life.

In the wake of Lee’s story, first one woman, then two, then three reported incidents of sexual harassment by then-Scientific American blog editor and Science Online co-founder Bora Zivkovic.  Of particular note at this stage of events was the pattern of reactions to the news about Zivkovic, who was a cornerstone of the English-language science blogging world, widely known and liked.  By me too, btw.  Devoted fans of my Virtually Speaking Science gig — yes, all 6 of you, counting my cat — will recall that Bora was on the show last January.  He was kind to my fledgling blog as he was to many others, and the reserves of good will he engendered play a role in this story.  The concept of “community” was invoked to suggest that Zivkovic’s role in fostering community as an end in itself suggested some kind of amelioration or alternate context for the one incident on the table.  As more women came forward, that line of argument largely evaporated — but it set the context for the public debate that followed.

Moving forward, there was Rapey-Einstein-Curie-Bobblehead-gate.  I kid you not.  Joe Hanson, who writes the It’s OK To Be Smart blog for PBS digital posted a Thanksgiving video showing famous historical scientists (bobbleheads) gathered around the table.  Marie Curie was the only woman on hand, and the video ended up with Einstein assaulting Curie.  Oy.

What made that particular embarrassment worse that neither Hans0n nor PBS seemed to get quite what was wrong with the piece — as Kate Clancy* writes, Hanson apologized, but said he was trying to draw attention to the insufficient representation of women in science through the video.  PBS merely lauded Hanson and itself for  opening up “up an important, though difficult, debate” — as if the conversation about rape, discrimination or abuse of power was suddenly brought to our attention by this act of intellectual courage.

One of the most striking aspects of the whole last few months was the surprise gap.  Women in science writing were unhappy to hear of each insult and act of diminishment imposed on other women — but, at least as documented in that immaculate scientific assay, Twitter, they were utterly unsurprised by the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.  Men, those with some power and those pretty much without, mostly had a different reaction. They — and this certainly goes for me — had a collective “I had no idea that this happens to all of y’all” reaction.


But it does.  Crap gender behavior is a constant, it seems; at least every woman I’ve spoken to in the science writing world reports interactions ranging from the unnecessarily and workplace-inappropriate awkwardness to outright sucker-should-be-in-jail awfulness.  The data on women’s advancement through the ranks of power in both science itself and public science communication reflect both the leaky-pipe impact of such environments and the power of old-boy networks, even in this day and age.  See this and this and this for examples, with Janet Stemwedel’s post as context.

So we’ll be talking about all of this:  what happened to bring the issue of sexual harrassment and gender discrimination to the fore in the professional world of science communication; what it means on the ground for the craft — and hence, inter alia, for the goal of engaging the public in science and the use of scientific thinking for civic participation; and what can be done to address the systemic flaws that have enabled gender discrimination to persist, for all the (often quite spectacular) self-congratulation science communicators have allowed themselves in the very recent past.

As to my guests.  Maryn McKenna is a return visitor to the program, having joined me in April to talk antibiotic resistance and why we’re all doomed.  She’s one of the country’s leading public health journalists, who has spent the last several years diving into the problem of antibiotic overuse and the evolution of increasingly resistant microbes.  She’s also someone who has thought long and deeply about gender issues in our shared profession, and you can find some of her writing on the subject on her blog (variously linked above).

Janet Stemwedel is a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who teaches the philosophy of science and its ethics, among other concerns.  She’s known on the web as Dr. Freeride, and she blogs about a wide range of issues of ethics and public responsibilty in science.  It’s both too horrible and necessarily inaccurate to say that someone is “the conscience” of a group, but Janet is nonetheless one of those to whom many of us turn when we want to talk through a question with rigor and humanity.

Should be a rich conversation this afternoon. Hope y’all can make it, or check out the podcast when it suits your schedule.

One more thing:  it should go without saying, but in case it doesn’t, there’s nothing unique about science journalism or public outreach.  Some of us in the business (almost exclusive the male sort) thought there was, that we had enlightened ourselves as a group past the broader social issues raised by ongoing gender crap.  This program is both a result of and an attempt to further disabusement of that notion — and, I hope, whatever I’ll learn from Janet and Maryn will also serve as a guide to navigating the same issues in settings beyond science writing.

IOW — this may all look like inside baseball for science writers.  It’s not.

*BTW — as I write this the news just came off embargo that Kate’s been named one of the journal Nature’s 10 — “Ten people who mattered this year,” recognized for her work in developing data to demonstrate the reality of sexual harassment and physical or sexual assault in research settings.

Images: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562.

Thomas Cole, The Expulsion from Eden, 1828.


Women in Science Communication: Two Lows and One High

October 15, 2013

I’ve been spending (too much of) my day thinking and talking/tweeting with colleagues about a couple of the pathologies that have recently reasserted themselves in the popular science communication arena.  One incident was the grotesque case in which Scientific American blogger the Urban Scientist, Danielle Lee, was called a whore for the sin of inquiring whether or not someone asking her to write stuff might actually pay for her work.  Compounding that outrage, Scientific American took down Lee’s post describing this incident for a couple of days amidst murky attempts at justification.  The original guy’s been fired from his company, I’m happy to say, and Scientific American’s leadership has made some effort to right the ship.   I may/probably will have more to say about that whole story in a little bit.  (Elon posted on this, btw.)

Then, last night, I learned of playwright and writer Monica Byrne’s post on an encounter  with the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, Bora Zivkovic, that amounted (in my view, recalling that IANAL) to sexual harassment.*   I know and have great affection for Zivkovic, which has slowed my reaction to this news (I’ve also published a couple of guest posts at Scientific American under his editorship).  But there’s no doubt either about the truth of Byrne’s account — Zivkovic has confirmed it — nor about the deeper and broader reality it reminds us exists out there.  Gender discrimination and harassment is not simply about the big obvious shit.  It’s a daily burden, driven by the fact that women in America have to be always on at least yellow alert, even in spaces and circumstances that should be/appear-to-even-well-meaning-men to be totally safe.  I’ll try to come up with something a little more thoughtful and in depth on this one too, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll add that I hope to have my thoughts in order by Wednesday, October 23, when I’ll be doing my monthly host gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  My guest will be Eileen Pollack, professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, one  of the first women to earn a BA in physics from Yale, and the author of this New York Times Magazine piece asking why there are still so few women in science.  It’ll be at an unusual time for the show — 3 p.m. ET — but it’ll be podcast too, and I hope you’ll check it out.  We’ll have a lot to talk about.

But none of that’s what prompted me to post right now.  Rather it was my chance encounter with a right proper reclamation of the place and priority of one of the great women scientists of the 20th century, Rosalind Franklin — who happens to be a rather loosely construed family connection of mine. (Franklin was my mother’s cousin’s husband’s aunt.  My English relatives form kind of a clan and we count folks like that as kin.  Call ’em all cousins and let someone else sort  them out.)  Especially at the end of a day dealing with the recognition that my particular community is no more immune to inequity and more than any other, watching the video below offered a moment of take-that joy.

So sit back, hit play, and enjoy the new wave of science communication.  Franklin, resurrected, represents:

*To be precise.  The post was a year old.  Byrnes updated it last night to identify Zivkovic by name, a decision triggered, she wrote, on reading of Danielle Lee’s troubles at Scientific American.


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