David Perlman on the record
David Perlman, award-winning science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, has been reporting on science and technology for more than 50 years. In addition, he's been a colleague, mentor, and personal hero to legions of NASW members, one of whom is Cristine Russell, who recently spoke at length with Perlman about his illustrious career. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. Perlman celebrated his 90th birthday on Dec. 30, 2008.
CR: What advice would you give to a young journalist who wanted to cover science today?
(photo by San Francisco Chronicle)
DP: First of all, learn how to ask questions and how to make people explain the answers. Never be ashamed or afraid to pursue something that you don't understand. And then, come prepared with as much background as you can possibly get. It means reading ... I don't know Mars for Dummies. Or something that is highly technical if you can. But prepare yourself.
CR: How encouraging or discouraging would you be about going into science writing?
DP: Well, clearly, the idea that dominated most of my generation was that you wanted to work for newspapers. That is shrinking. I think science writers will be doing more and more in-depth writing for magazines or long scripts on the Internet. But they still have to cope with the reader's unfamiliarity, ignorance, or lack of interest. It's the same old problem of engaging people and making them want to be interested in whatever the science topic is.
CR: How have things changed?
DP: Less money for travel. Fewer and fewer meetings are covered. There was a time when I covered everything from AIDS to zoology and would go to every major medical society meeting. I don't do that anymore. Of course I don't cover medicine anymore, but our medical reporters don't go to those meetings either. Science writers, I think the sophisticated ones, are finally aware that sometimes scientists present the next "cure for cancer" in those meetings, and then the study never appears in the peer-reviewed journals. You remember one of our colleagues (Victor Cohn) said many years ago that medical news stories are all the same — new hope or no hope.
CR: What about enterprise stories?
DP: Well they're the most fun because by going to somebody's lab, going into the field with somebody, you are able to convey something of how science is done. It is the increase of basic and real knowledge that is so important for people to understand. It's part of our culture. What good is a symphony? What good is an abstract painting? What good is a piece of stem-cell research? Yeah sure, we all hope it will have practical benefit. But the point is that it is a fascinating new way to explore how the human body works.
CR: How do you find sources, and how much do you use Google, the Internet, and e-mail?
DP: All of the above. I talk on the telephone when I have some questions I need to be really clear about. Scientists that are in Berkeley or somewhere nearby, I can always go to their lab and talk to the person. One thing I always want to credit is the PR people at the universities and research institutions all over the country. Because they are the ones who send you a press release about somebody who published in a journal that you never heard of and you otherwise wouldn't have seen.
CR: How have relationships with scientists changed?
DP: Scientists, to a considerable extent, are more willing to talk to journalists. There has been a lot of talk within the scientific community about their obligation to communicate with the broad public. And the fact that by communicating they get the local support they need on appropriation bills for NIH or NSF or whatever. So I think scientists are far easier to talk to today than they were when I was starting out.
CR: How do you avoid being a cheerleader for science or else catering to the critics?
DP: I'm probably vulnerable to being termed a cheerleader for science. But that is a little bit like saying the paper's music critic is a cheerleader for music, or the art critic is a cheerleader for art, or the person who runs the book review section is a cheerleader for books, even though many of the reviews might be negative. The process of science is what you're really writing about.
CR: When did you decide to be a newspaper reporter?
DP: There are two versions of my own recollections. My mother had a friend who was a reporter on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and every year he used to give us free tickets to the Ringling Brothers Circus. I must have been about 10 or 11, and I thought that was the most fantastic thing in the world - to be a reporter and get free circus tickets! Then I saw the stage performance of the play "The Front Page." And that was when I knew that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter just like those guys. I must have been about 12 years old.
CR: You started as a general assignment reporter at the Chronicle. What turned you into a science writer?
DP: I was covering a lot of science stuff indirectly. Water issues, land reclamation issues, offshore oil drilling issues. We didn't have a fulltime science writer then. In 1957, I broke my leg skiing. I wound up in the hospital, and our kid's pediatrician brought me a book called The Nature of the Universe (by Fred Hoyle). He said 'It's a fascinating book about astronomy.' And I said 'I don't care about astronomy. Why don't you bring me a good detective story?' I read it and thought, 'Geez, that was interesting!' So once I was able to walk around, I decided to go up to the observatory, and I met a guy named George Herbig. I asked him 'what do you do for a living?' and he said, 'Well, I am interested in stars being born in the Orion Nebula.' It really was one of the most romantic images that I'd had in my life. And that kind of intrigued me enough to say to myself, 'Nobody is writing about this stuff. I'll do it.'"
CR: You also started covering medicine from scratch.
DP: I was at a medical meeting, and a pediatrician from Stanford was presenting something brand new about children's digestive diseases and bilirubin. I didn't really understand what she was talking about. Afterwards I went up and said 'Dr. Gross, I thought there was something in medical ethics that you didn't talk about your patients. Who is Billy Rubin?' I swear to God that's true. That poor woman fainted or practically did. Then she explained that bilirubin is not a person. I thought I was going to get an interesting story about a kid that had some disease, and she cured it. 'Who is Billy Rubin?' became a joke among a group of our friends.
CR: Did you take science in college?
DP: I had science survey courses at Columbia that were required. I didn't care anything about them then. But there are a lot of popular science books, and I read quite a few of them, especially in the earlier days. I think if you begin writing science fulltime, you begin to meet or have contact with people in a number of disciplines you can call for help. If somebody really wants to go into science writing, I'd advise: don't do as I did, but try to take more science in college. You've also got to write, write, write.
CR: What reader are you writing for?
DP: I'm trying to write for intelligent people who have a reasonable education and curiosity. On some subjects, I know everybody is going to love it. All Mars missions. People are interested in that stuff. But I'm trying to get people interested even if it's not a Mars story. I'm surprised continuously by the questions I get from kids.
CR: What makes you excited to get up in the morning?
DP: It's going to work, going in the newsroom, and finding a story to work on. I have no plans to retire. I'm going to be found dead and leaning against the computer screen. And, I have absolutely no plans to write my memoirs. I can't imagine myself having the patience to write a book.
CR: What is the biggest science story on the horizon?
DP: I won't live to see it. It would be the discovery of earth-like exoplanets with habitable zones and then the discovery of some kind of life on them — 25 years from now at least. Perhaps nearer on the horizon, would be, I hope, the discovery of evidence of past or present life on Mars.
Cristine Russell is a freelance writer, senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.