Where science and journalism meet: Telling a great story of a great quest

Where science and journalism meet: Telling a great story of a great quest

September 15, 2006

The beginning of the modern-day relationship between science and the media could perhaps be traced to the headlines that turned Albert Einstein into a 20th century superstar in November, 1919.

“The Revolution in Science/Einstein Versus Newton” read the headline in the London Times.

And in the New York Times: “Lights All Askew in the Heavens/Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations/Einstein Theory Triumphs.”

The newspapers of the day were reporting on the measurements taken during the solar eclipse of that year, of the bending of distant starlight near the sun. The measurements proved Einstein’s theory of gravity to be correct.

From then on, Einstein’s travels were widely reported and large crowds gathered wherever he went. Everyone longed to talk to him, get his autograph and share ideas with him.

In explaining the phenomenon of Einstein’s celebrity, science historians have remarked that in 1919, people were weary—still mourning their losses from the First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic. So Einstein was the hero the world desperately needed at the time: a pure intellect putting forward fresh ideas, and heralding a new era and way of thinking.

But there was also something more timeless in the reaction to the news of Einstein’s achievement. Human beings are naturally curious creatures. Our earliest ancestors looked up at the night sky in wonder and sought to understand it. So we shouldn’t be so surprised that people were captivated.

What had changed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was the speed and the ease of mass communication. The telephone and transatlantic wireless telegraph made it possible to popularize and deliver the news of discoveries to the masses virtually overnight, no matter where the discovery was made or what it was about. This meant that the accomplishments of scientists, even theoretical physicists, were no longer bound to the discourses of learned men in the halls of academia or the drawing rooms of the upper classes.

In today’s internet era, access to information is even more instantaneous and global, available to the person sitting at home on a farm in a remote region of Canada or in a university library in a large metropolis. Today, science is truly for everyone.

In the midst of this, and because of it, science journalism is taking on a more critically important role in the lives of average citizens trying to make sense of the discoveries happening around them at an accelerated pace.

In this increasingly complex, fast-paced information age, journalists are the translators. Be it a story about a municipal waste treatment project, alternative energy, the bird flu, climate change, cloning, nanotechnology, particle physics or quantum computers, the job of the journalist is to take the subject, no matter how difficult, and make it comprehensible to the non-scientist.

The challenge is to maintain the accuracy of the science, yet make it interesting and colourful.

It can be done, even dealing with the most sophisticated and theoretical of science concepts. One example was the series of profiles I wrote in 2004 for The Record, on the people and the ideas being explored at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

It was a great honour to be recognized for that series in being named the first winner of the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Superstars of Innovation Writer’s Award.

My hope is that this award will play an important role in encouraging the development of excellence in science journalism in all media outlets in Canada, no matter how large or small.

Many reasons have been cited for why science journalism is important, not the least of which is the fact that a well informed public is critical to good political decision making in a democracy. But an even more basic reason is the one that was obvious during Einstein’s celebrity years. Journalists tell stories about the human quest. And there is no quest more fundamental than trying to understand the universe around us.

So this is where science and journalism meet: telling a great story of a great quest.

Rose Simone is Staff Writer for the The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo region); Winner, 2004 Superstars of Innovation Writer’s Award.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.