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Winners of the 2009 AAAS Kavli science journalism awards

A radio broadcast on probability told through a tale about a drifting balloon, a newspaper series on the impact of a devastating genetic disease on a family in rural Montana, and a group of gracefully written stories about genetics and evolution are among the winners of the 2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The 2009 awards are the first to be given under a new endowment by The Kavli Foundation. In recognition of that endowment, the awards first given in 1945 now are called the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. The Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity.

The new endowment also allowed expansion of the television category to include two awards for the first time, one for spot news/feature reporting and one for in-depth reporting.

Independent panels of science journalists select the winners of the awards. The winners for each category will receive $3000 and a plaque at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego in February.

Jad Abumrad, Soren Wheeler and Robert Krulwich of WNYC's Radiolab won the radio prize for a story about what happened when an English girl released a balloon with a label, "Please send back to Laura Buxton." In the south of England, the balloon landed near the home of another Laura Buxton. What to make of the startling coincidence?

"This is a tale about miracles which, on closer examination, are not quite as miraculous as they seem," Krulwich said. "Ordinarily an anti-miracle story sounds like a downer but in this case, by mixing girls, grandpas, balloons, statistics professors and probability theory, we came up with an un-miracle that feels almost miraculous. I think that's way cool."

Soren Wheeler said he had long been trying to "find ways to get regular people to engage not only with scientific ideas, but also with the habits of mind that are so important to scientific thinking." Winning the award, he said, convinces him that "you really can pull people in with a good story and help them develop the tools to think critically."

Natalie Angier, a New York Times science writer who was one of the judges for the radio category, said that many scientists "wish, above all, that the public had a better understanding of probability, and this piece brilliantly rises to the challenge of making it so."

Amie Thompson of the Great Falls Tribune in Montana won in the small newspaper category for a three-part series on how a family in Turner, Mont., is coping with a very rare genetic disorder that strikes in midlife with symptoms of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Thompson told the story of how a dedicated researcher uncovered the rare disease but, she said, "what made the story come to life for me was listening to how the disease has affected each family member." Several young family members now know that they are destined to come down with the disease. "The family clings to hope that researchers will find a cure before the next generation is attacked," Thompson said.

Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal, one of the judges for print entries, said Thompson "admirably blends human interest and science in a heart-breaking saga of life, death and DNA."

Carl Zimmer won in the large newspaper category for a trio of articles he wrote for The New York Times on aspects of genetics and evolution. "I sometimes feel a little embarrassed that I like to write articles about the kinds of basic questions my kids ask me," Zimmer said. "For the three stories I submitted, the questions were, 'What's a virus?' 'What's a gene?' and 'Why do fireflies flash?' I had a marvelous time talking with scientists about the complex answers to those simple questions, and now, thanks to this award, I don't have to feel at all embarrassed." Zimmer previously won in the online category in 2004.

"I am very pleased that The Kavli Foundation, with goals similar to those of AAAS, has joined in helping us honor such fine examples of science journalism," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science. "The winners demonstrate the breadth and depth of contemporary science reporting, even at a time when journalism outlets continue to face daunting economic challenges."

"We are truly delighted to support this award honoring science journalists whose excellence has been recognized by their peers," said Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation. "The ability to communicate science in an understandable, interesting and exciting way is essential to gain the support of the public and the policy-makers, and to stimulate the interest and excitement in our youth to select science careers."

"The AAAS awards have long recognized the importance of high-quality science journalism across the board," said Cristine Russell, president of the nonprofit Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. "The Kavli Foundation's decision to endow the awards is particularly important at a time when accurate, insightful writing about science is threatened by rapid changes in the media marketplace. The future of this program is now assured as a new generation of journalists tackles important science developments and their impact on society."

The full list of winners of the 2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:

Large NewspaperCirculation of 100,000 or more

Carl Zimmer
The New York Times
"Now: The Rest of the Genome"
"10 Genes, Furiously Evolving"
"Blink Twice If You Like Me"
11 November 2008, 5 May 2009, and 30 June 2009

The judges applauded the graceful style and breadth of Zimmer's entry. From the biology of fireflies to the evolution of viruses to the secrets of RNA, Zimmer "finds fresh and original ways to introduce readers to complex basic science," said Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press. "His beautiful writing hooks you to the very end." Nancy Shute, a freelancer formerly with U.S. News & World Report, said Zimmer "brings surprising insight and perspective to subjects as heavily covered as the swine flu virus." Hotz of The Wall Street Journal said Zimmer's work "demonstrates the continuing strength of print journalism and the commitment of newspapers" to convey compelling research to their readers.

Small NewspaperCirculation less than 100,000
Amie Thompson
Great Falls Tribune
Lethal Legacy (series)
21-23 June 2009

Amie Thompson of Montana's Great Falls Tribune told how a family in Turner, Mont., is coping with a deadly genetic disease so rare that only a handful of families worldwide are known to be affected by it. The disease, pallidopontonigral degeneration or PPND, strikes in mid-life with symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. "Though the story focused on a human drama, it gave readers a needed look at the tragedy of genetic diseases and how they might be avoided," said Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer. Through the family's story, Shute said, "readers learn how difficult it is to research genetic disorders, and how essential it is to have the cooperation on families like these."

Gary Wolf
"Barcode of Life"
October 2008

Gary Wolf, a contributing editor for Wired, took readers into the arcane field of taxonomy to follow an evolutionary biologist who is convinced that he can build a simple, universal identification system for all animals. If barcodes work for cans of soup on the grocer's shelf, he asked, why not for bugs? "In this fresh and engaging tale, Gary Wolf doggedly pursues the trail of a scientist in pursuit of a theory," said Mary Knudson, a freelancer who also teaches science writing at The Johns Hopkins University. "This story has it all a compelling narrative, illuminating profiles of key players, and a deft explanation of why this all matters to readers of a magazine not known for its coverage of biology," said Gugliotta. Neergaard called it a "riveting look at taxonomy that highlights the passion behind a field" unknown to many general readers. "When I write a piece for Wired, I'm always aware that scientists are going to be among the readers," Wolf said. "And of course, they are some of the most critical readers. That sense of exposure to their skeptical intelligence is one of the things I love best about my work."

Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Julia Cort
NOVA scienceNOW
"Diamond Factory"
30 June 2009

In the winning program segment, host Neil deGrasse Tyson visited a production facility that makes diamonds good enough to fool a jeweler. The segment described the properties of diamonds, the advances in materials science that allow their manufacture, the advantages of lab-made diamonds over natural diamonds, and their potential use in fields such as electronics, transportation and communications. Warren Leary, a science writer formerly with The New York Times, called the segment "a good showcase for science and engineering that the public can understand and enjoy." Freelance science writer Brian Vastag said the segment gave an "entertaining snapshot of a technology that could change the field of electronicsA rare materials science treat." Cort noted that "chemistry is usually a tough subject for television, but this was irresistible, since the story also involved secret locations, a blindfolded host, 3000-degree plasma, and a character who regularly deals in 100 carat diamonds." She added: "I'm thrilled and extremely honored that the AAAS chose to recognize this NOVA scienceNOW piece, and I'm delighted to know that even scientists are not immune to the allure of bling."

In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Doug Hamilton
"The Last Extinction"
31 March 2009

What caused the rapid extinction, some 12,900 years ago, of large mammals such as woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and giant ground sloths that roamed North America? The NOVA program explored the leading theories, including the possibility that a comet broke apart in the atmosphere and smashed into the continent in multiple pieces, triggering explosions, forest fires and other devastating effects that led to the demise of up to 35 species of large mammals. The judges called the program, which used striking computer animations of the animals in question, a balanced exploration of a controversial theory. "The piece exhibited great writing, with dramatic tension between competing views," said Janet Raloff of Science News. Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer formerly with The Washington Post, said the program "dramatizes the rigors of the scientific method in such compelling areas as the search for a specific layer of ice from 12,900 years ago, the discovery of extraterrestrial nano-diamonds that brings one scientist to tears, and clues hidden in sloth poop." Hamilton said there were no guarantees when his team decided to follow a scientific expedition in Greenland where the outcome was very uncertain. In the end, he said, "not only were the results really fascinating, it allowed us to show real science in actionfrom strenuous field work to the emotional thrill of those rare moments of discovery."

Jad Abumrad, Soren Wheeler, Robert Krulwich
WNYC Radiolab
"A Very Lucky Wind"
15 June 2009

The judges praised the winning radio entry on probability for its lively, non-traditional approach in tackling a subject that touches on a fundamental issue of science literacy. David Baron of Public Radio International called it "a wonderfully entertaining and educational examination of magical thinking and improbability." Robert Boyd, a science writer for the McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau, called the entry "a remarkably fresh and entertaining way to introduce the dry subject of probability."

Lisa Friedman
"Bangladesh: Where the Climate Exodus Begins" (series)
March 2009

In a five-part series that ran in March 2009 on ClimateWire, an environmental news service, reporter Lisa Friedman described the potential impact of climate change on Bangladesh, which some scientists see as ground zero for a likely wave of climate-induced mass migrations around the globe. Friedman "brings climate science down to a human level and highlights how one often-overlooked corner of the world is affected by climate-changing activities elsewhere," said judge Tina Hesman Saey of Science News. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press said Friedman's project "provides an excellent look at an under-reported aspect of climate science that proves a single reporter armed with science and curiosity can make a difference." Friedman's stories ran on the Web sites of Scientific American and The New York Times. "I visited places where families had lost absolutely everything, their mud homes completely submerged in water, and still women would offer to cook me meals," Friedman said. "I would not have been able to do these stories without them, and without the dozens of experts across Bangladesh who spent, collectively, hundreds of hours walking me through the vulnerabilities the country faces" and the steps needed to avoid future catastrophes.

Douglas Fox
Science News for Kids
"Where Rivers Run Uphill"
23 July 2008

Douglas Fox used his journey across Antarctic ice sheets to show how scientists are studying a strange world of lakes and rivers beneath the ice. He wrote that scientists think that "lakes under the ice might act like giant slippery banana peels." He and the researchers traveled to a lake that is "buried under ice, two Empire State Buildings below our feet." Arndt Reuning, a science reporter for Deutschlandradio, said Fox covered "an important issue in a vivid and funny way. He's a superb and entertaining story-teller." Catherine Hughes of National Geographic Kids said that Fox "succeeds in bringing the reader with him as his scientific adventure in Antarctica unfolds." Fox said that perhaps the biggest challenge in writing his story for a young audience "was remembering to be awestruck by the basic things that we tend to take for grantedlike the simple fact that glaciers can evaporate. More and more I think that this is also good advice for communicating science to adults."


Contact: Earl Lane
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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