This image shows a Sputnik 1 satellite, which was the world’s first earth-orbiting artificial satellite. Sputnik translates from Russian as “fellow traveler.” NASA Photo.
October 4, 1957, was bright and clear in Lebanon, Missouri, and I will remember it forever. I was downtown when I noticed that the post office flag was at half-staff. Inside, a clot of stunned people listened to the yammering of a radio announcer. The Russians had launched a satellite. Sputnik, they called it.
As a geeky teenager and sci-fi addict, I knew instantly what had happened and what it meant. I let out a whoop of joy and went running home to tell my dad.
All along the elm-lined streets people were out of their houses. Some looked terrified, others cried. My landlady stood, head back, hands spread to the sky, beseeching her God not to destroy the world because the Russians had trespassed on Heaven. I detoured around her, pounded up the stairs and blurted the news to dad. No religious nut, he. But he didn’t share my elation.
“That means,” he said, “the Russians have won.” He went straight to the corner bar and got drunk.
My friends and I couldn’t comprehend the reaction. But, then, who understood adults? Our science teacher would be different. We looked forward to his class.
The science teacher really wasn’t a science teacher, of course. As was the way in those days, he was coach. But we figured he’d at least read the books he assigned us. So we greeted him with anticipation. What was this thing? How did it work? What did it mean?
He turned on us. We were being stupid. Sputnik was just another big red lie. Such a moonlet would violate one of the most fundamental laws of physics, to wit: What goes up must come down.
So the new age drew a bright line between those who celebrated and embraced science and technology and those who feared and denied it. Five years later C.P. Snow, the British novelist and physicist, would be the first to put it into words. A great schism was growing, he said. Scientists and like thinkers were splitting off from the humanistic majority, and each was going its separate psychic way, developing its own assumptions and languages. And while the scientific culture was a relatively small one, it had immense power—and that power was growing exponentially.
This schism defined much of life for the rest of the century, and while we’ve all been touched by the struggle, nobody has had a wilder ride than science writers have. Our beat required us to penetrate into the heart of science and then return with our stories to newsrooms that represented the very opposite in assumptions, politics and emotions. Our sources often despised the media for its many excesses and oversimplifications, and our editors often dismissed us and our news as too complex and too specialized. The sum of that experience showed that the average journalist is much more ignorant of science and hostile toward it than the reader.
There are studies to that effect, like the one that showed a majority of managing editors thought dinosaurs lived at the same time as early humans and that the moon had a dark side upon which the sun never showed. Editors ignorant of science tend to handle paragraphs they don’t understand by taking them out. Not long ago a wire story about astrophysics appeared in a prestigious newspaper with its entire middle, from the nut graf to the wrap-up, cut out. What was left gave no clue as to what the physicists had done. Later, the managing editor told me that “If our readers want to know about science they can read the journals.”
But, in the end, it’s the personal things that are telling. When I worked for The Evening Sun in Baltimore, I was a gardener. Like others, I brought in produce to share with my fellow reporters. But while the vegetables from other gardens were snatched up, mine were untouched. Hurt, I asked a friend why. He hemmed and hawed and finally said, “Franklin, you’re a scientist and so they don’t know what you may have done to those tomatoes.”
And there it was. I wasn’t a scientist, but I associated with known scientists, which gave rise to the lingering suspicion that I might poison my colleagues.
I am told journalism began with enlightenment printers who named their publications “journals” in the spirit of science. This was Locke’s principle: The world was evidence to be considered, sifted through, theorized about. But that strain died out of journalism early on, as it underwent a cultural merger with politics and politicians. Today journalism is truly the fourth estate of government. Thousands of reporters write millions of words every day about political and administrative processes. Reporters and politicians need each other. They have developed a shared understanding about what’s fair game and what’s not, as well as a nuanced language that distinguishes, for example, between “off the record” and “deep background.”
So far so good. But today science and technology comprise a force that is at least equally important—and possibly more so. What was the basis of the rising standard of living that made the middle class so much more generous with people of different races and socioeconomic levels? What of radio, which changed politics utterly, and television, which changed it again? What of the birth control pill, the computer, modern cancer therapy, beta-blockers for heart and ulcer patients?
But there is little journalistic recognition of this new social force. If newspapers suddenly undertook to cover the various human endeavors in order of their importance and potential impact, science would fill the news columns. There wouldn’t be enough qualified science writers to fill the job openings—openings that would come at the expense of other beats. Which ones? Answer that question and you will identify the pockets of newsroom hostility to science writers.
As a result, each scientific and technological advance has surprised us— and has been met by political histrionics from the consternation over the ethics of the kidney machine to the horror over the concept of brain death, the first heart transplant, the first genetic engineering experiments, the suggestion that fetal research might save many lives. Consider, more recently, the White House’s almost humorous struggle to put together a statement on cloning human embryos. How desperately the politicians looked around for the court wizard, but they hadn’t appointed one. And so they got the numbers all wrong.
In each case, the public was taken by surprise. We gave them stories, for sure, but they were few in number and fatally flawed because they didn’t have the prominence they deserved and weren’t given the space necessary to make their importance clear. In many cases they were written and edited so sensationally that they could not be understood in their proper context. “Science stories,” one editor once told me, “make my executive editor get all jittery. He doesn’t understand them, or know anybody who does. So he doesn’t see why we should run them.”
That’s probably true. Though the executive editor lived in the same place as thousands of top-flight scientists, he didn’t go to the same cocktail parties they did. Newspaper people don’t generally hobnob with scientists, and most scientists have kinder feelings for termites than for journalists.
The current emphasis on cutting newsroom budgets has deepened the dilemma. Science writing, both the reporting and the writing, are quite simply more difficult to do than other kinds of stories. It isn’t so much that science is more difficult—you want complex, look at the rules governing baseball. But most Americans have a context for baseball, and they have practically none for science. That means you have to give a whole lot of backstory. That takes time and space, and most of all it takes experience. And it’s those three things—time, space and experience—which are expensive. Science stories, inch for inch, are the most expensive copy in the newspaper. Good science stories are hideously spendy.
The result is a journalistic culture that all but ignores what is perhaps the most powerful force of change in our world, and that makes life excruciatingly difficult for the handful of serious science writers with designated beats. And, as I sadly tell my eager would-be science-writing students, it makes beats almost impossible to get.
If it’s so bad, why do we do it? Because it’s fun. It’s exciting. Once you’ve done it you can’t imagine doing anything else.
The isolation of scientists actually adds in some way to the thrill of penetrating into the worlds, say, of biophysics, genetic engineering, climatology, particle physics or geochemistry. Imagine being down at Cape Canaveral when a manned rocket takes off. Television fails utterly to capture the thrill, the intensity of the hydrogen fire, the beauty of the billowing steam, the pounding waves of low frequency sound that penetrate into your body and make your very bones vibrate. I was so moved that I cried.
I have seen heart cells in a culture coalesce and begin to beat. I was perhaps the first nonscientist to get the full explanation of the discovery of the opiate receptor. I remember standing outside the Johns Hopkins briefing room, dumbfounded by the unavoidable conclusion that true behavior-modifying drugs lay just around the next bend of history. I will never forget the months I spent watching a young genetic engineer make his first mouse. And there was the night—it must have been yesterday—that I stared into the eternal black night of a crystal lens in an observatory high atop an Arizona peak. I have seen surgeons remove a diseased heart from a living human being and replace it with a new one. I saw Mount St. Helens erupt from a vantage point no more than a thousand yards from the rim of the crater. Most of all I have been able to watch and even participate in that most exciting of all human actions, the thought processes of intelligent human beings bent on discovery.
Lest you think I have some special access, I should note that the opposite is true. Science is remarkably open, and because scientists worry about the public view of their profession, they are remarkably helpful. As a result, I have had the best of teachers. I’ve been behind the scenes, in laboratories, at the cocktail parties. When people ask me if I have a scientific background—which I don’t—I always remember the time I was trying to figure out why Daniel Nathans, a Johns Hopkins virologist, had gotten the Nobel Prize for something called “restriction enzymes.” We had written up the story and all, but—I still didn’t understand. So one afternoon I happened to be by his office and noticed that the outer door was open.
I went in, and there was no one there. But there was another door, and I knocked. A chair scraped, and Nathans opened the door. Behind him were half a dozen of the university’s more notable scientists.
Conscious that I was interrupting a meeting, I stammered out to Nathans what I wanted. I asked if maybe he had some handout or something.
He looked at me for a second, grinned, and told me to come in. He politely shooed out the other scientists, closed the door, and spent the next three hours explaining to me that restriction enzymes were going to be the scissors that genetic engineers—a specialty still in the future—would use to snip out specific segments of tiny, invisible DNA molecules.
When I walked out of that tutorial, I not only had a general idea of what restriction enzymes were but also a whiff of some kind of genetic revolution in the immediate future. That, in turn, made it much easier to adapt to the new world that was just around the corner.
That’s the joy of it. The lament is that I wish I had had the time and space to share what I’d learned with my readers.
This image shows water vapor in the earth’s atmosphere, visible in infrared wavelengths. NASA Photo.
Jon Franklin wrote his first science story when he was 19, and two Pulitzer Prizes and five books later he’s still writing them—and teaching others to write them as well, at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where he holds the Philip Merrill chair. Known as a narrative writer as well as a science writer, he is founder of WriterL and author of “Writing for Story.” He also teaches literary journalism.