Interview with science writer George Johnson

By Davide Castelvecchi

As an assignment for the Santa Cruz Science Writing Program back in March 2004, I had to choose an experienced science writer to get his or her take on the profession, and then write up the interview as a Q&A. George Johnson, a New York Times writer who covers physics, math, and computer science, kindly agreed to be interviewed, and later to have the Q&A posted on Johnson was an obvious choice for me because of his interests, but also for other reasons that will become obvious from reading the Q&A.

Like many of us, Johnson started out as a science geek and later became a writer. He made his debut with an investigative environmental piece for an independent weekly newspaper, then worked the crime beat at the Albuquerque Journal before moving to the New York Times. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., where he co-directs the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. Johnson’s latest book is “Miss Leavitt’s Stars,” which chronicles Henrietta Leavitt’s groundbreaking discoveries in the early 1900s that led to the realization that our galaxy is only one of many and that the universe is expanding.

Castelvecchi: Writing about science often involves making draconian choices about what to leave out, to avoid overwhelming the reader with technical details. You are one of the few science writers I know who like to openly remind the reader that what they are presenting is a simplified picture, and that their metaphors are not the “real thing.”

Johnson: Yes, I like to subtly work in a disclaimer, sometimes, just to remind people that — especially when you write about physics, and quantum mechanics particularly — a really precise description that would do complete justice to the phenomena is going to require differential equations. Of course that’s not one of the tools you use in science writing. Whenever you are translating mathematical work into natural language, there’s inevitably going to be some imprecisions. So it depends on the audience I’m writing for. But sometimes I like to put in a little reminder. Partly, it’s just to keep scientists off my back. They’ll say “it’s not exactly that way, the electron isn’t really in two places at the same time…” Of course, that’s when you get into the interpretations of quantum mechanics. People disagree about that, and some of the interpretations lend themselves better, I think, to explicating the ideas for the general audience. Those are the ones we grab and put in our toolkit.

C: How close do you think a metaphor can get to the ‘real thing’?

J: It’s something I thought about a lot. It depends. When you are talking about things in the domain were we live, between the microscopic and the hugely macroscopic, then they’re probably pretty close. For example, when describing the way one neuron communicates to the other – when a neurotransmitter is picked up by a receptor – the metaphor we always use is the lock-and-key, where the shape of a molecule happens to fit in the nooks and crannies of the receptor. It does some violence to the concept, but for the essence of what’s happening, a lay reader is pretty well served by that metaphor. I guess, the more I’ve done this, the more I like to poke a little fun at the process.

C: Speaking of challenges: When you write about math, do you write for those who like it, or for those who hate it?

J: I feel like I’m writing for people like me, who love the idea of mathematics, and like to think about the big picture and the general meaning – of multidimensional spaces, for example, or strange topological objects – but who would never have the patience, or maybe even the right mental capacities, to be able to do the mathematics. I can sort-of get the gist of what a complex set of equations is saying if I have somebody walking me through and giving me the general idea. And I have to take a lot on faith.

C: Do you think that a lot of readers of the New York Times like math, or do you think that it is just a niche?

J: I don’t know. I always wondered how many people really do. Books on popular mathematics seem to sell surprisingly well, but I think it is a niche. I don’t know how many people who pick up the New York Times read Science Times [the Tuesday science section], and of those how many just look for health articles, or articles about cute, funny animals. There’s probably a minority of Science Times readers who are real physics junkies, who like to follow all this weird stuff. And then probably, of those, there’s another subset that like the really abstract mathematics. But I don’t know that they have ever done any reader surveys to determine that.

Grigory Perelman

C: You have written about the Poincaré conjecture before — the great unsolved problem about the topology of three-dimensional spaces. According to the news editors of Nature, a recent story the magazine ran about Grigory Perelman — the enigmatic mathematician who claims to have solved the conjecture — was one of the most read on their Web site.

J: That helps justify what we’re doing. It shows that you can take a subject that most people would not normally be interested in, and – if you’re a good enough writer – you can figure out the right way to present it. I guess that’s the ideal of the profession.

C: In one of your books, “Fire in the Mind,” you compare scientists’ quest for order in chaos with religion’s yearning for meaning in things. Not all science writers, and especially not all scientists, have a favorable view of irrational ways of thinking. When they talk about of faith and New-Age superstition, skeptics such as Martin Gardner and Richard Dawkins can be especially abrasive.

J: It’s very easy for them to make fun of irrational forms of thinking. I find myself doing it as well. I guess what I was trying to show in “Fire in the Mind” is that you can even take the very rational forms of thinking, and come up against the edge of knowledge, where you have take the� leap of faith even in science.

C: Do you think that ridiculing superstition helps gain “converts” to science, or does it turn more people off from it?

J: That’s a good question. The people who enjoy these presentations that make fun of astrology and fortune-tellers are the ones who already think it’s ridiculous. And maybe it just makes the people who believe that really defensive. It’s probably a waste of time, and anyway I don’t see them as much of a threat.

Fashionable Nonsense

C: The science wars: a great row started when a physicist named Alan Sokal wrote a parody of postmodernist critique — and then managed to get it published in a trendy postmodernist journal. You were asked to comment about this on Talk of the Nation Science Friday. The animosity between the ‘two cultures’ is sometimes blamed on the intellectuals’ lack of science background.

J: I think that’s probably true, but on the other hand, there’s a real lack of education in philosophy among a lot of scientists. I think a lot of the post-modern attack on science is from people who are looking at science as one more belief system. I think it’s valid to look at science that way, as a belief system that’s based on things that seem to be obviously true, like causality and temporality. Science obviously produces some very important results. But when you really start thinking about what science is, and why it works, and why the universe is mathematical – if it really is … And are there really timeless, eternal, platonic laws, or do humans invent these nice algorithms that work well, and keep improving them until they work well for practical purposes? I think it’s good to have people who step outside the system sometimes, and say: “Gee, wouldn’t it be something if everything they believe was wrong?” I find that fascinating, and I think that, as with anything, it’s probably the excesses that lead to really ridiculous extremes. And then you get these wonderful parodies like Alan Sokal’s – and the fact that this is accepted for publication makes you wonder how rigorous their thinking really is. But I think that, like in any field, there’s probably people who are doing some good intellectual criticism.

C: What I thought was ironic about Sokal’s hoax was that it was mostly targeted at intellectuals who did try to learn about science — and then, in Sokal’s view, misused it.

J: That’s true, and then they use it for rhetorical purposes. Maybe sometimes that’s the fault of the science writers. We use our metaphors in explaining parts of a theory, to give the general readers the best idea we can of what the theory said mathematically. But then some of the people who do these post-modern critiques will take the metaphor as being more than it’s meant to be.

Jacques Lacan

C: From reading Sokal, it seems that even erudite, intelligent people like the late French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan can get science wrong. What can a science writer do help his or her readers avoid such misunderstandings?

J: That’s getting back to the idea of reminding people that the metaphor may not be a 100 percent faithful rendition of the concept. When you’re talking about quantum mechanics, it’s something that scientists understand very well mathematically, and the equations work. But what it means is and always will be open to interpretation. It starts going outside of science and into philosophy. Whether the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen effect really means you have spooky action at a distance or not is a matter of interpretation. Some scientists, like Murray Gell-Mann, will say “that’s ridiculous, only an idiot would believe that!” He would say it’s just a correlation that is stronger than the correlation that goes on in the non-quantum world. Now what in the world does that mean? It seems pretty spooky to me!

C: Speaking of Murray Gell-Mann, you wrote his biography, “Strange Beauty.” Did you enjoy the research that went into writing a biography – I’m thinking of the part of the work that makes you a historian, as opposed to a journalist?

J: Oh, that was my favorite part. The worst part was having to sit in a room and talk to Murray Gell-Mann two hours at a time. It’s something they should do to prisoners. I’m actually kidding: most of the time he was really nice, and we got along well. It’s just that it was so tedious sometimes. But I loved being alone in an archive and looking at old records, and going through these folders – and just the mystery of not knowing what’s going to appear. Everything I had read about quarks and the Eightfold Way, until I started doing the book, was in books that had absorbed the material and repackaged it. None of them really captured the history, and when they did, it was the version of history where, once something happens, everything leads inevitably to the conclusion. It’s nice, instead, to go back and be able to recreate all the stumbling, and show who disagreed with whom, and try to get a sense of what it’s like to discover something when you don’t know what the answer is going to be. You’re just looking into the blackness, trying to puzzle it out. I love doing things like that.

C: For a young writer who might one day want to write a biography, do you have any advice on how to approach a possible subject?

J: It varies. Gell-Mann turned me down completely at first, and what worked with him is that I just decided that I was going to do the book anyway. It took me about a year, and then he decided “what the hell, I might as well cooperate.” A lot of people, including myself, have proposed writing a biography of Francis Crick. And he just turns everyone down cold. I thought, maybe I should try the same approach, to just go ahead and start doing it, but somehow my instincts were that it would not work with him. I don’t know, I might still do it sometimes.

C: Peer review in science is the subject of continued controversy. You wrote about the fabricated claims for the creation of element 118, and other cases where inadequate peer review may have allowed the publication of bad science. What is the role of journalist here, and is there enough investigative science journalism in areas other than medical research?

J: There’s probably not. Especially if someone makes a discovery in something like theoretical physics, we assume that this is really what they discovered, and it went through the review process, and it has the stamp of approval of the scientific method on it. But there are so few ways for that ever to be checked. I guess the only times it really is checked is in cases like that of element 118, where no one can replicate the experiment. Then they start going back, they do the relevant investigation, and then the science writers get in and report on science’s own internal investigation. You have to wonder just how many false discoveries fall through the cracks, and how many experiments really are replicated. I think that would be ripe territory, for a science writer who knew enough physics to at least ask the questions, to just go in and see what are the things that physicists are grumbling about. And then go back and look at it in depth.

C: One of the main reasons why you live in New Mexico is your passion for hiking. Would you ever consider going back to New York if you could be the editor of Science Times?

J: I don’t know, I don’t think they’re going to offer it to me. And so much of the job involves going to meetings everyday with other editors, for instance for the Page One of the paper. Plus, I’d find it really hard to live in New York again: to do that, you either have to be very young or very rich. And I couldn’t stand to live in New Jersey and commute by bus every day.

(Posted on October 14, 2006)

Updates: For his work on thePoincaré conjecture, Perelman has since won, and turned down, the Fields Medal, the most coveted prize in mathematics.
On October 16, 2006, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has announced on the synthesis of element 118 in a collaboration with the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions in Dubna, Russia.

Sadly, Francis Crick died a few months after this interview, and Martin Gardner passed away in 2010.

Related links:

Selected articles by George Johnson from the New York Times archive

George Johnson’s Web site,

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