Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Simons Institute Launches Journalist-in-Residence Program

by Kristin Kane

The Simons Institute is delighted to announce the creation of its Journalist-in-Residence program, which launched this fall.

The program was created with the goal of increasing visibility for theoretical computer science, and supporting science journalists interested in covering the field. Journalists in Residence participate in the Institute's programs and engage with visiting scientists. Early in the semester, they give a talk to the Institute community about their work; this may be followed by a talk on a topic of the journalist’s choosing, or (as this semester) a series of workshops over the course of the semester focused on helping scientists communicate their work to the public.

The Institute’s inaugural Journalist in Residence is Erica Klarreich, who has been with us for the Fall 2016 semester. She holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Stony Brook University, and is a graduate of the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz. A freelance journalist based in Berkeley, Erica has written for Quanta, Nature, New Scientist, Science News, and Wired.com, and her work has been reprinted in The Best Writing on Mathematics 2010, The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011, and the upcoming The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016. Read Erica’s article in this issue of the Simons Institute Newsletter.

In Spring 2017, the Institute will welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer John Markoff as our second Journalist in Residence. Longtime senior writer on science and technology for The New York Times, Markoff is the author of numerous books, including Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, and What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

A conversation with Erica Klarreich, the Simons Institute’s first Journalist in Residence


How did you find your way into science journalism?

Erica Klarreich

Well, I started off in math. I come from a math family – my parents were both math teachers, my grandfather was a math professor – so it was sort of the family business. And I never really seriously considered anything else. I was always good at math, and when you’re good at something and everyone around you does it, it just sort of feels very natural to do it. And so I didn’t go through this process that many people go through in college, where they’re trying all kinds of different things, and doing a lot of soul-searching.

I finished my PhD when I was 24, taking a very direct path. And so I started doing all this questioning much later in the process than most people do. Part of it was that I had never realized until I got into it just how specialized I was going to have to get in order to have a research career. There’s the occasional mathematician who’s able to have this big-picture view of things. But most people find their way into some small field and stay there. And I found that not so satisfying, even though the field that I was in, which was three-dimensional hyperbolic geometry, is one of these areas that sits on the border of all these different fields. But unfortunately, that just made it feel overwhelming, like I never felt as if I knew enough. So I started thinking about what else I could do, and for a long time I just kind of drew a blank.

But I started reading a lot of popular science, which I’d never really done growing up – I always read fiction. But some friends lent me some books and I started reading them and enjoying them, and thinking, oh, I guess there must be people out there who are writing this kind of thing. If I’m reading it, someone must have written it, and that means that it’s something that people do. So I started thinking that maybe this was something I could do. Because I’d always liked writing.

What kind of writing had you done and enjoyed, before that?

You know, it’s funny, because I have two sisters, and I always considered them the writers of the family. But now I’m the one who is actually a professional writer. They were always writing stories, and so I was always writing stories, just to kind of keep up with them. And then in college I minored in English, because I wanted an excuse to keep on reading these giant nineteenth-century English novels that I loved. And I was one of those weird people who actually enjoyed writing term papers. So there were these clues out there that it might be a good fit.

So I started looking around to see, if I were going to become a science writer, how I could actually do that. And I came upon the website of the science-writing program at Santa Cruz. The more I read about the program, the more it seemed as if it could be the right thing for me.

Are there other programs of that sort?

There are other science-journalism graduate programs, but this one is kind of unique in that it’s focused very much on turning scientists into journalists, rather than turning journalists into science journalists. Basically everyone there has a science background. When I was there, a few of us had PhDs and several had master’s degrees, and the others had undergraduate degrees in science.

You know, journalists know how to write a lede, and they know how to get their stories out there, but they don’t necessarily understand the science. Scientists understand the science, but they don’t necessarily understand how to put together a good story, and they don’t know how to get their stories out into the world. So the Santa Cruz program is very focused on those things. And it is a very intense nine months, and you do internships while you’re there, and you always do an internship afterward as a final piece of the program. So I did a six-month internship with Nature in London.

By the time I’d finished there, I’d pretty much decided that I wanted to be a freelancer rather than getting a full-time position. And I was very fortunate, actually, to get offered a Journalist in Residence position coming right out of the Nature internship, at MSRI. So that was a nice way to get started.

At the end of that residency, I stayed in the Bay Area, and I’ve been freelancing ever since. I took off a few years when my son was little, and I was very fortunate because right around the time when I wanted to ramp up again, the Simons Foundation decided that they wanted to start providing journalistic stories on their website, and they asked me to write something, and that went well, and then they asked for another. And so I wrote these stories for this website that eventually led to the creation of Quanta Magazine.

Did you know you wanted to specialize in math journalism?

Yes, although I don’t entirely specialize in math journalism. In fact, since I have been writing for the Simons Foundation a fair bit, I’ve developed this other smaller niche in autism genetics, because as you know, they fund a lot of that research. And when I was at Nature, I pretty much wrote about everything. But math journalism has kind of become my niche, and it does work well for me. There’s actually a fair bit of hunger for math stories among magazines, just because there aren’t many people writing them.

The final question is something that came up at your first talk. People are very impressed with what theoretical physics is able to do for itself in terms of penetration in the mainstream media. And it’s not that it’s any easier to understand – in fact, it’s extremely difficult to understand – but physicists have been very successful in their outreach. One of our dreams at the Institute is for theoretical computer science to capture the public imagination in a similar way. Do you have any insights into how that might actually happen?

I remember shortly after my talk, I was having a conversation with some of the visiting scientists at tea. And someone said something that I think was quite astute, that in some ways theoretical computer science is a victim of its own applicability to real-world problems.

I think theoretical physicists have done a very good job of cultivating this sense of, gee-whiz, we are probing the fundamental questions of the universe and life and meaning. I think that’s one of the big attractions of theoretical physics for a lot of people – they feel as if they’re taking a break from their practical lives and diving into something that has sort of no practical value, but is a fundamental aspect of the human quest for knowledge. And there are these figures like Albert Einstein, these almost mythological figures who also help to give it this feeling that it’s important because it says something fundamental about who we are – the fact that we are asking these questions.

And theoretical computer science, which definitely has that element, is nonetheless talking about problems that come out of very practical questions about how we can use computers in our lives. So you know, in some ways it’s a pro and in some ways it’s a con. When I’m writing a theoretical computer science story, it’s very nice to be able to say, this might actually have some application to the real world. It helps to ground the story, and it gives one reason why we should care about it. But giving that as a reason can undercut this other reason – that we should care about it because we’re human beings exploring the Platonic world of thought, and these are fundamental questions.

So this doesn’t really spell out any particular recommendation. But when you’re thinking about how to get theoretical computer science stories out there into the real world, to the extent that you can cultivate that sense of wonderment, I think that’s a good thing. 

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