FEd August 1995 Newsletter - Profile of a Science Writer: Profile of a Science Writer: Ivars Peterso

August 1995



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Profile of a Science Writer: Ivars Peterson

Ivars Peterson has been covering the worlds of mathematics and physics for the weekly magazine Science News for 14 years. Peterson earned an undergraduate degree in physics and chemistry at the University of Toronto in his native Canada, followed by an education degree. As a high school physics teacher, he was involved with AAPT, gave presentations at meetings, and developed his own newsletter. Photon: Physics for Fun began as a tool to show his students that physics is not only fun and interesting, but is also relevant to everyday life. Over five years, he produced 50 issues (he notes that this was before the days of desktop publishing) and had an international subscriber list of over 500 people.

After eight years of teaching, Peterson found that increasing administrative duties prevented him from staying as current and involved in science and teaching as he wanted to be. Science writing seemed to him to be an ideal way to combine his love of sharing science with others and his desire to keep abreast of new developments. Peterson entered the master's degree program in science writing at the University of Missouri, in part due to the opportunity to compete for an internship at Science News. Science News shares the philosophy of relevance and timeliness, reinforcing Peterson's interest in explaining how science is relevant to everyday life. "I like doing stories," he relates, "on things like scotch tape and why it doesn't stick when it's wet." His efforts at the University of Missouri program were rewarded by his winning the internship, which eventually led to his current job. Initially, Peterson covered the "miscellaneous beat" at Science News -- things that were not being covered by other reporters due to lack of time or lack of interest. "I got into math writing partly because no one else was doing it," Peterson explained, "The trick in journalism is to do things other people don't do. You can either really compete and try very hard to be first with something, or brilliant with something, or you can pick a field where there's practically no one else writing and make that your specialty. I chose the latter." One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a science writer, Peterson says, is talking to scientists about their research. Peterson marvels that, "in 14 years, there has practically never been anyone who has refused to talk. Everyone is interested and excited about what they're doing." Due to the small staff at Science News, Peterson does all of the background work for his stories himself. To prepare for an interview, he consults preprints, publications in journals such as Physical Review Letters, press releases and databases. "Sometimes," Peterson says, smiling, "I have to do the interview blind, and then it's exciting because it tests how quickly I can think!".

Although his science background assists in preparing for an interview, Peterson feels that the most essential skill a science writer needs is the ability to find a story, identify what aspect of the story is interesting and then to tell the story well. Unlike many other publications, Science News editors usually allow the writers to initiate story ideas, as opposed to assigning stories. Learning how to identify a story -- especially when faced with a massive amount of information -- is something that is missing from a journalism school education, Peterson says. "It's an important skill no matter what you do, and it's something that's not taught so easily."

One place where Peterson is routinely confronted with having to winnow through huge amounts of information is at meetings of the professional scientific societies. Readers of Science News are familiar with the `Ivars Peterson reports from the American Physical Society meeting in ....' byline used to introduce the one- column brief reports of meeting highlights. When asked how he chooses what stories to cover, Peterson laughs. "Let's take the March meeting," he says, "You get this big thick book of abstracts and I used to go all the way through, and read every one. But that's not very efficient!" His current distillation technique involves limiting his reading mostly to invited papers. His own interests play a role in selecting topics he finds interesting, and he also checks to see if the topic has been covered before. "My innovation for this year," he continues, "is that I've put it all on a computer grid and I put in which things look interesting. Some things conflict and are eliminated." Topics of press conferences presented by APS during the meeting may also influence his choice of stories. Reports of results that will shortly appear in a journal like Science, Nature, or Physical Review Letters receive high priority, both for their timeliness and for providing background prior to the talk.

In addition to his writing for Science News, Peterson has authored a number of books. The difference between the two types of writing, he notes, is that the longer format of a book allows him to present more details of the story. Science writing -- like most types of journalism -- requires above all accuracy and quickness. The shorter space available in Science News each week means that aspects of the story must be left out. In some cases, these aspects generate an idea for a book. For example, Peterson's current book- in-progress is based on twelve topics he's written about for Science News, but with a more thorough and leisurely telling of the stories. Each chapter will start with an event familiar to the reader -- perhaps a sneeze, fireflies, or soap bubbles. These common events will be used to introduce some basic science. Finally, he'll explain how mathematics plays a role in understanding the events. "These are the same discoveries I wrote about in Science News," he says, "but presented in a way that brings people into the story. You might call them `math x-rays'". After fourteen years, is there anything Peterson would like to say to the physicists he's covered? "Just thanks," he says, smiling, "you've made this a very interesting job." Ivars Peterson's most recent book is entitled Newton's Clock.