The Last Word


December 14-19, 2014

In the second half of Ann’s reflections on Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, the subject turns from academic life to Jason, the group of physicists who advised the US government on science, including tactics to be used in the Vietnam War. As before, she lets Murph do the talking.

Press release-driven science journalism is lazy and inherently flawed, argues our guest Stephanie Paige Ogburn. The motivations of those who write them are at odds with the goals of journalism, and the public deserves proper beat reporting in context, rather than study stories.

One of the great and trivial mysteries of life is the fate of those small items – ballpoint pens, elastics and paperclips – that we rarely intentionally throw out, but which disappear all the same. Somewhere out there is a paperclip sink, we muse, a person with an ever-growing wealth of these vanishing microtools. Her name is Nell Greenfieldboyce.

Cassie presents an astoundingly accurate account of the working practices of professional science writers. Highlights include the conveniently ambiguous nature of deadlines in a globalized industry, the fortifying powers of a bra, and crucial steps such as, “Go to the kitchen. Eat all the things.”

Finally, Michelle leads us into some weekend feature reading with a story about abducted Laotian environmental organizer Sombath Somphone. She invests us irretrievably in the man as a young, striving high school student who earned the support of his English teacher and paid the opportunities back in hard work back home.


Image: JF Sebastian, via Flickr

The Long Legacy of a Good Deed

7407963894_a9b4d51976_zTwo years ago this week, a well-known environmental organizer named Sombath Somphone was detained at a traffic stop in downtown Vientiane, Laos, and driven away in a white pickup. He has not been seen or heard from since. You can read a lot more about Somphone, his work in Laos, and his wife’s remarkable efforts to call his abductors to account in my story for National Geographic

Right now, though, I’d like to tell you a story about his high-school English teacher.

Continue reading

How to Write a Science Feature

drawing1. Write late at night, preferably the night before your deadline. That’s when the creative juices will really be churning. Your gut will be churning too. With panic.

2. Don’t write the whole piece in one fell swoop. Focus on a single sentence. Make sure that sentence is perfect before you move on to the next. Never mind that the entire paragraph may eventually be trashed. This. Sentence. Must. Be. Perfect. Agonize over it. Erase it. Try again. Get frustrated. Check Facebook. Maybe one of your writer friends has posted something on her newsfeed that will help you crack this goddamned sentence. Nope. No helpful hints. But here’s a video of a bunny chasing a cat. Adorable! Maybe you’d like to own a bunny. Research how to litter box train a rabbit.

3. Now it’s 1am. Time to really get serious. Go downstairs and make a cup of tea. Choose Tazo Focus tea for obvious reasons. Discover that the tea’s name is nothing but an empty promise. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Art of Losing Paperclips

14400470234_0b59324859_kNot long ago, walking past some court buildings with a friend, I kept stopping to pick up paper clips. Besides the usual little Gem clips, like ACCO Brand Trombones No 1, I found a black-and-silver binder clip and a rare angel-shaped “ideal clamp”–all of them no doubt carelessly dropped by lawyers who once used them to hold together reams of paper and their clients’ worst fears. My friend asked what I’d do with these paper clips, what I do with all the paper clips I’ve picked up. “Do you have a big box, or some sort of display?” he said, clearly amused at the thought that I privately worshipped at a bizarre altar festooned with paper clips, like an ancestor shrine. I was offended. “No!” I said. “I use them!”

The trouble is, once you start seeing paper clips, you can’t stop seeing them. My obsession with lost paper clips started years ago, when I resolved to start gathering coins. I’d read some article that argued that only a fool would walk past free money and that taking a second to collect a coin meant that, at that moment, you’d be making more than minimum wage. I started scanning the ground for nickels, dimes, or quarters, but hardly ever found any. Instead, I saw the metallic flash of paper clips.

Figuring that one paper clip was worth roughly one penny, I started picking them up. This hobby seemed harmless at first, but I should have known myself well enough to foresee my vulnerability. Paper clips in the abstract do not move me—I’ll never read design-oriented books like “The Perfection of the Paper Clip.” What makes me feel weak and tender and deeply sad is the sight of a forgotten paper clip alone in a sidewalk crack. Continue reading

Who Gives Press Releases Their Power?


Newsflash — Press releases about medical studies may contain hype. That was the conclusion of a report published last week in the medical journal BMJ.

Petroc Sumner, a professor at Cardiff University, compared 462 press releases on medical studies from leading United Kingdom universities in 2011 and found that 33 to 40 percent of the time, they contained exaggerations. These exaggerations then made their way into news stories.

A number of media outlets covered Sumner’s study. Wired UK’s headline read, “Universities cause more medical distortions than journalists.” At the Atlantic, medical writer James Hamblin discussed how the blame for exaggeration is commonly placed on journalists, but often lies with universities. “Ideally the endpoint of that press release would be the simple spread of seeds of knowledge and wisdom,” Hamblin writes.

Really? As a journalist who has covered science, but also a wide range of other topics, my response to this finding can be captured in one word: “Duh.”

duh Continue reading

Marvin Goldberger, Always Called “Murph”: Part 2

murph-19.1-LPart 1 is here.

While Murph was still at Princeton, in his first years there, he was spending summers consulting, sometimes for defense contractors, sometimes for the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  (A lot of physicists did this: academic scientists’ salaries run for nine months; they needed summer money.)  Then a little later, during the post-Sputnik years, Murph gave the government advice on science matters (radar, nuclear bombs, and missiles are just physics) as a member of an unusually-powerful President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). So between defense consulting and PSAC, not to mention the Manhattan Project, Murph developed a sense that he and other scientists should take over from the first generation of  science advisors — whom he respected but didn’t much like and who were usually from MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.  So he thought he should, as he said, “step up to the plate.”

So one summer he participated first in a sort of briefing on science-related defense problems called Project 137; and then the next summer, he and two other physicists formed a group of contractor/advisers who were independent, who were full-time physicists advising for summer money only, whose salaries didn’t depend on their advice.  Nothing like this group had been done before and really, nothing has since.

Mildred named the group, Jason.  Murph was its first head; he stayed active in the group until around 1967.  By this time, Jason was being asked how to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam.  Jasons, Murph included, came up with a plan by which the enemy would set off hidden sensors whose signals were to be detected by our airplanes which would bomb the infiltration routes.  The Jasons called it the Air-Suppported Anti-Infiltration Barrier.  When the military took over the plan and used it to bomb the enemy everywhere, the newspaper called it (wrongly) MacNamara’s Wall.  The Senate hearing on its use, years later, called it the electronic battlefield and said “it has the possibility of being one of the greatest steps forward in warfare since gunpowder.”  Which it did: it’s the way wars are fought now.  But it’s not what the Jasons intended. And when the Pentagon Papers published the Jason report, Jason’s was confused with reports by the older Cambridge physicists, and caught high-temperature hell from the activists.  For some Jasons, Murph in particular, the episode could have come straight out of Faust. Continue reading

The Last Word, December 8-12

unnamedChristie tells Ira Glass a story that ends up on the cutting room floor. Now, listening to the hit podcast Serial, Christie gets why. Each personal story has to fit the larger mission of the show. “I was only capable of telling my story from inside the moment — with details that gave away the punchline before I’d ever had a chance to set it up.”

Sure, there are a lot of differences between dogs and cats, says guest poster David Grimm. For example, their interest in us: “If humans were a radio station, dogs would listen to us all day long. Cats would spend half their time surfing other channels on the dial.” But they have a lot in common too. And they’d be able to see that if only they could look into one another’s eyes without hissing and barking and scratching.

Addicts don’t much like scientists. “On the streets science is something that happens to you, often something bad. Clinics are often avoided, with employees seen as cold and confused, unable to do anything but bring short term relief and long term pain.” To change that perception, maybe addiction researchers should try living and working where their subjects do, says guest poster Chris Arnade.

Interstellar provides perhaps the best image yet of how a black hole should look, Richard says. How can you tell? Because you can see through it. Why? Physics. That’s why.

Ann launches a two-part series to remember physicist Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, former president of Caltech, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, dean of the University of California at San Diego . . . I could keep going, but let’s just say he was really smart and distinguished. Ann, who has interviewed Murph many times, lets Murph have the last word



Image credit: Chris Arnade


Marvin Goldberger, Always Called “Murph”: Part I

murph-19.1-LThe day before Thanksgiving, Murph Goldberger died.  He was old, he’d been born in 1922; and in those nine decades, he’d collected an extraordinary amount of life.  He was drafted right out of college into the Manhattan Project’s brilliant and very young Special Engineering Detachment, where he met his wife, Mildred; and ever after if you knew Murph, you knew Mildred.  He went to Princeton, where he contributed substantively to the development of quantum physics and later became chair of the physics department. Then he became  president of Caltech, then director of the Institute for Advanced Study, then slowed down a bit into a deanship at the University of California at San Diego.  Meanwhile he was on just about every national and international science advisory panel or board known.  He was a co-founder of the Jasons and its first chairman, and that’s how I happened to talk to him first, back in 1991.  I’d been interviewing him off and on ever since and for many reasons.  He was – obviously – smart, experienced, knowledgeable, and an all-around excellent source.  But the real reason I kept calling him was, I liked listening to him talk.  And I find myself remembering what he said.

So maybe a good way to remember him is to listen.  Or maybe — since you probably were not, like Murph, born to not-especially-educated immigrants; and since you probably also didn’t end up being president of Caltech, director of the Institute, and adviser to the country — you’d be interested in the guy who did it.  Continue reading