James Riordon assumed the helm of Media Relations at APS in February. He succeeds David Harris, who had served as Head of Media Relations since early 2002. Harris left APS to lead development of a magazine to be produced by SLAC and Fermilab for the particle physics community.
The media relations position was created on the recommendation of the APS Task Force on Informing the Public in 1999. Randy Atkins, now at the National Academy of Engineering, held the position from 1999 to 2001.
Riordon began his career in physics at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, where he designed and built instrumentation for a betatron accelerator that was being developed as an outgrowth of the Star Wars initiative in the 1980's.
"The intent was to build a high-current, lightweight, electron beam device the could be launched into orbit to shoot down ballistic missiles," says Riordon. "But at 7 tons, it seemed a little heavy for space flight. And as far as I know, they never managed to extract the beam from our machine."
Riordon left NRL in 1990 to join the Superconducting Super Collider's instrumentation group in Waxahachie, Texas as an applications physicist. There, he helped to develop beam current monitors and Faraday cups, and later specified lattices for beam transfer lines between the low and medium energy booster rings—just before funding was cut in 1992.
When the SSC shut down, Riordon returned to the University of Maryland at College Park, his alma mater, to join the Ion Beam Laboratory at the Institute for Plasma Research.
"We primarily focused on developing ion beam machines for high resolution lithography. It was interesting research, but after a few years I learned that I wasn't cut out for meticulous lab work."
One incident in particular left a lasting impression on Riordon. "I was working alone in the lab, trying to get the source for one of our beam machines going. I got tired of perpetually shutting down the system to make adjustments, and foolishly disabled an interlock system that was designed to shut everything off if a lead-lined enclosure was opened. Sure enough, I mistakenly opened the enclosure door while the source was operating and the Geiger counter I was carrying went off the scale, indicating that I had received what I believed to be a lethal dose of x-rays. I thought it was all over."
Riordon recalls that he turned off the source, and spent about ten minutes trying to decide whether to call an ambulance, or to live out his final hours visiting with his son at the campus day care and calling loved ones to say good-bye.
It was, says Riordon, the longest ten minutes of his life. "I decided instead to confirm my impending demise by turning on the source again to see what sort of a dose I had accumulated. Fortunately, it turned out that I'd had the counter turned to the most sensitive scale, and when I adjusted it properly I found that I had been exposed to relatively little radiation. It was clear that I was going to live…and equally clear that I was too impetuous to work around dangerous machinery."
Although he continued at the lab for several more months, the incident inspired Riordon to begin looking for safer job options. "I had been writing plays and freelance science articles on the side, and realized that the best way to combine my love of physics and writing was through a career as a science journalist."
Following a brief stint as an associate editor for the American Chemical Society's journal Analytical Chemistry, Riordon turned to freelance science writing full time.
"Freelancing is a tough way to start a writing career; I had an incredible amount of freedom to choose the topics that interested me, but much of my time was dedicated to pitching story ideas and marketing my work," he says. "There are few things I've enjoyed more than walking into a library or bookstore and seeing my work in a copy of New Scientist or Popular Science."
He eventually joined the American Institute of Physics media team, where he contributed to the venerable AIP newsletter Physics News Update, helped manage news rooms for AIP member society meetings, and worked to publicize the physical sciences through AIP's Inside Science News Service and the Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science television spots. All the while, he continued freelance science writing, and was a frequent, freelance contributor to APS News and the APS educational web site PhysicsCentral.
Just prior to taking over the Media Relations position at APS, Riordon proposed one of the cornerstone projects in the APS contribution to the upcoming 2005 World Year of Physics (WYP2005) celebrations.
"I've always been a fan of distributed computing efforts, like SETI@Home," he said. SETI@Home is a project that searches data from the Arecibo Observatory for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. "For a long time now," says Riordon, "I've been trying to think of other, physics-related, distributed computing applications." Einstein@Home, the WYP2005 distributed computing project, will analyze data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in a whole-sky search for gravitational waves from pulsars.
Einstein@Home has taken on a life of its own; I suggested the idea to [APS Associate Executive Officer] Alan Chodos and called a few people. But members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Peter Saulson and Bruce Allen in particular, have done the real work to get it going. All we at APS have to do is make sure that a million people or so take part in the project.
"Ensuring the success of WYP2005 is going to be a large part of my job at APS for the next two years," says Riordon, "in addition to trying to follow the stellar examples of Randy Atkins and David Harris in fostering media coverage of physics." But working with APS members and staff means I'll always have excellent material to offer the media."
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette