The Future, This Election, and My Anti-DespEration Plan

The Future, This Election, and My Anti-DespEration Plan

No one knows what the future holds. Anyone who tells you they do know is making stuff up. 

That’s one clear lesson from yesterday’s upset win by Donald Trump, which stunnedmainstream media outlets in part because their data-dweeb pollsters and analysts had been confidently forecasting the opposite for months. 

As Nathan Robinson wrote today in an insightful Current Affairs piece railing against Nate Silver and his peers: “It is crucial that the following lesson be learned well by progressives: these people do not know anything. Do not believe predictions, whether from this website or anywhere else. No political commentator or forecaster can offer you any real certainty, because they don’t have any special magic that the rest of us don’t have access to.”

But that doesn’t mean thinking about the future is a waste of time. On the contrary...

Putting the "Multi" in Multimedia - My First Broadcast Radio Story Airs on WBUR

Putting the "Multi" in Multimedia - My First Broadcast Radio Story Airs on WBUR

It's a big day in my budding audio career. Boston's NPR station, WBUR, aired a feature story that I've had in the works for a while. It's about the Boston's Longfellow Bridge and why it's taking so long to fix it.

The bridge is 109 years old, and it has been in atrociously rusty shape since the 1970s, if not longer. When contractors hired by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation started taking the bridge apart in 2013 as part of a $255 million rehabilitation project, they discovered that the decay was even worse than they'd feared. Because so much of the bridge will have to be rebuilt from scratch, what started out as a three-year project is now likely to take at least five.

The most interesting part, to me, wasn't the fact that most of the bridge's 2,000 spandrel columns (which rise from the central arches to support the road deck) need to be replaced. It's the fact that...

Women Can Take Back the Senate; Here's How to Help

Women Can Take Back the Senate; Here's How to Help

In past election cycles, when I was working inside news organizations or universities, I usually kept my politics to myself. Now that I'm freelance, I feel a little more free to express myself. Which is a good thing, since this is one election that's impossible to sit out.

Today I sent contributions to the five women candidates who could help put the Senate back under Democratic control. For those of you who may not have had time to get up to speed on the local Senate races or find the campaign sites, info & links are below.

Something amazing is happening: Democrats have an excellent chance of winning back the Senate. And in the five closest, most important races, the candidates are female. Wouldn’t it be great if...

Public Media Is Having a Moment in Boston

Public Media Is Having a Moment in Boston

Just when you might have thought podcasting and rich radio storytelling couldn’t get any hotter, along came 2016.

Here’s a short list of exciting developments---and this is just what’s happening here in Boston and Cambridge:

— WBUR and WGBH, rivals since WGBH switched to an all-news-and-talk format in 2010, are both rising in the local ratings. WBUR climbed from 10th in Boston-area audience share in May to 9th in July. WGBH climbed from 14th to 13th. Together the stations claim 6 to 7 percent of the broadcast audience share in Boston—the nation’s single largest cluster of NPR listeners.

— The Public Radio Exchange (PRX) spun off RadioPublic, a new public benefit corporation developing new mobile apps for...

The Freedom to Be My Own Boss

The Freedom to Be My Own Boss

It’s the Fourth of July—a good day to talk about freedom, hope, and responsibility.

The big news in my life is that my two-year gig at MIT ended a few days ago, on June 30. For the first time since 2007, I don’t have a boss to report to, other than myself.

Those last three words are important. At MIT, I was sort of my own boss, in that I was running the Knight Science Journalism fellowship program, which is part of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and then I was working fairly independently on an STS initiative. But throughout that time, I still reported to the program head. 

Now I’m my own boss, for real. There’s no one else who can hire, fire, or evaluate me. There’s no one overseeing me, and no one to look after me, except me...

For WBUR, Asking: Can Conversation Help End the Science Wars?

For WBUR, Asking: Can Conversation Help End the Science Wars?

Today Cognoscenti, the op-ed website run by Bostons's NPR station WBUR, published some thoughts I've been developing about the emergence of science denialism and NIMBYism as paralyzing social and political forces, and how people who'd like to see the emergence of healthier forms of public engagement should respond.

The piece is called Beyond the Science Wars: Stories of a Shared Future

In some ways the piece is a mini-manifesto for the project I've been working on this year at MIT, the proposed Center for Science Engagement...

Young Scientist-Communicator Honor Roll

Young Scientist-Communicator Honor Roll

Today I'm giving the closing talk of the semester to students in an MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science course called 6.S977 - Technical Communication for Graduate Students. The course is mostly about how to write scientific papers, talks, posters, and grant applications, how to prepare for VC pitches, and the like. But the question for today's wrap-up class is "how to engage the public," and I'm going to spend part of my talk reviewing fun examples of public science outreach and communication by young scientists. 

Disillusioned: The Challenger Disaster at 30

Disillusioned: The Challenger Disaster at 30

Today is the 30th anniversary of the fatal, final flight of the space shuttle Challenger. To mark the occasion, I wanted to re-share a short essay I wrote in 2008 for Graham Gordon Ramsay's book A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life: Self-Reflection Using Photography, Art, and Writing. The piece was republished in slightly different form at Xconomy in 2011. When the disaster unfolded, I was a 19-year-old freshman studying astronomy and physics at Harvard.  The piece focuses on the disaster's personal meaning for me at the time...

Virtual Reality Storytelling at The New York Times: My First "Annotation Tuesday" Piece for Nieman Storyboard

Virtual Reality Storytelling at The New York Times: My First "Annotation Tuesday" Piece for Nieman Storyboard

At the invitation of my old friend and colleague Michael Fitzgerald, I wrote a piece published today by Nieman Storyboard, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard that focuses on the craft of journalism.

The article takes a look at some of the technical, logistical, and journalistic decisions that went into the making of The Displaced, a dazzling virtual reality film about refugee children, released for mobile and Web platforms in November 2015 by the New York Times Magazine. 

Following Nieman Storyboard's "Annotation Tuesday!" format, I interviewed Jenna Pirog, the NYT contributing editor who...

Fun Side Gig: I'm the More-or-Less Official Google Hangout Host for the MIT Alumni Association

Fun Side Gig: I'm the More-or-Less Official Google Hangout Host for the MIT Alumni Association

Six times a year for the last several years, staff from the MIT Alumni Association have interviewed top MIT faculty in a series of live, registration-only webcasts from MIT under the title Faculty Forum Online. It's one of ways the association keeps MIT alumni up to date about the latest R&D on campus and how Institute researchers are helping to find solutions to important problems around the world. 

In March 2015, MITAA's new director of alumni education, Joe McGonegal, introduced a variation on the webcast formula called Faculty Forum Online, Alumni Edition. The main differences were that the new show would feature MIT alumni rather than faculty, and would use Google Hangouts rather than more expensive and elaborate live webcasting technology.

Joe wanted to find a journalist to host the series, and he invited me in for a tryout. I've since hosted all but one of the sessions. They occur every month or so and typically feature a panel of three researchers who did their undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctoral fellowship work at MIT and are now teaching and researching at other universities. We start with introductions and a short dive into the topic at hand, guided by...

The 38 Top Podcasts of 2015

The 38 Top Podcasts of 2015

After closing out my year as acting director of the Knight Science Journalism program last May, I plunged straight into producing the massive ScienceWriters2015 conference, held here at MIT in mid-October.

After that extravaganza, which ended up being the largest meeting in the history of the National Association of Science Writers, my life settled down a bit, allowing me to focus full-time on my new role as outreach officer for MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

My job this year is to plan a new STS/MIT initiative  aimed at promoting public engagement in technology and science. Much more on that soon.

Already, though, I can share my hope/plan/prediction that  podcasting will be part of the initiative. Which means...

Talking with Inquiring Minds' Indre Viskontas about Disasters, Climate Change, Journalism, and the Future of Science Communication

Talking with Inquiring Minds' Indre Viskontas about Disasters, Climate Change, Journalism, and the Future of Science Communication

I was thrilled to be the guest this week on the Inquiring Minds podcast with Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari. 

It's a production of Climate Desk, the groundbreaking climate-reporting collaborative backed by The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired. Previous guests have included folks like Steven Pinker, William Gibson, Adam Savage, Mary Roach, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mark Ruffalo, and Sylvia Earle.

Indre asked me about all my favorite questions: How disasters (both natural and technological) shape public understanding of, and attitudes toward, science and technology, and why...

Guardians of the Flame: Parting Thoughts on Science, Journalism, and Progress

Guardians of the Flame: Parting Thoughts on Science, Journalism, and Progress

One of the drearier memes in media circles today is that it’s a great time for journalism, but a rotten time to be a journalist. Thanks to the Internet, which gives a platform to millions of new voices, readers have more content to choose from than ever before. But the new ways of paying for it—the revenue from cat-video listicles and advertorials supplied by “brand publishers,” plus the semi-philanthropic impulses of owners like Pierre Omidyar or Jeff Bezos—aren’t likely to provide a living wage for large numbers of full-time journalists.

Or so the meme goes. And it’s partly true. The economic challenges facing the news industry are real, and they are particularly acute for specialists, including journalists who cover science, technology, and health, and the environment. 

But they are just that: challenges. Problems have solutions, though their forms may be hard for us to see until they’re upon us. 

It may seem at times that the market is indifferent to our craft. But while there are lingering questions about who will pay us to ...

Fan Mail from the Metaverse

Fan Mail from the Metaverse

Last month I received a note that turned out to be just about the best piece of fan mail I've ever received. 

It was from Timothy Jackson, a Technology Review reader who said that my 2007 cover story "Second Earth," which was about the potential confluence of digital mapping tools like Google Earth and virtual worlds like Second Life, changed his own life, providing him with a new career and even leading him into a long-term relationship that's been going on for five years now.

The note was so amazingly nice, not to mention gratifying, that I wrote back to ask Tim if I could share it here. It's reproduced in full below.

To understand Timothy's e-mail, you need a little background about Second Life. Opened in 2003, it's one of the earliest and most extensive online virtual worlds, with about 1 million regular users overall and about 50,000 people online at any given time, according to the company that built it, San Francisco-based Linden Lab. It's a vast, unstructured, user-driven environment where...

Radio Is the Rage in Science Storytelling

Radio Is the Rage in Science Storytelling

I got back to wet and chilly Boston Sunday night after a mind-blowing weekend in Phoenix attending Newsgeist, the future-of-news unconference sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation. At events like this, there's often admiring buzz around a recent project, product, or company that's seen as the potential model and savior for journalistic storytelling. Back in 2010, at the first iteration of the conference, all the talk was about mobile apps like Instapaper and Flipboard. So, what was hot this year? It was Serial, the new podcast from the team behind This American Life at WBEZ in Chicago.

Over and over again, Newsgeist attendees—and we're talking about 160 of the country's most daring thinkers about the overlap between technology and journalism—said they were completely hooked on Serial, a true-crime story spread across a nine-episode season. Everyone seemed a little surprised and bemused by the idea that...

Dispelling the Gloom: An Open Letter to Science and Technology Journalists

Dispelling the Gloom: An Open Letter to Science and Technology Journalists

If you’re a journalist and you spend too much time listening to magazine editors talk about falling advertising and subscription revenues, or checking Columbia Journalism Review or Romenesko for updates on the latest newsroom downsizing, it’s easy to get discouraged about your career choice. 

But now is not the time to lose heart—and in this post I’m going to tell you why. 

First, though, a word of congratulations. If you’re reading this blog, that probably means you chose science, health, environment, or technology reporting as your career. So: kudos to you. It’s a noble calling, and one that will...

Rumors of the Tablet's Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Rumors of the Tablet's Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Farhad Manjoo is disillusioned. In two recent New York Times posts, he's wondered aloud whether there is a real place for tablet computers in an era when phones are getting bigger and laptops are getting more portable. "Tablets have lately been suffering and identity crisis; there doesn't seem to be much to do on a high-powered tablet that you couldn't do better on a phone or computer," he writes.

Really? How quickly the advent of something shiny and new (<cough>the iPhone 6</cough>) makes us jaded about the previous coolest-thing-ever...

The Challenges of Reporting on New Drugs

The Challenges of Reporting on New Drugs

There's an Andrew Pollack story in the Business Day section of today's New York Times that provides an excellent model of responsible news reporting in the drug-development business, while also illustrating how hard it can be to make a properly sourced and hedged story feel compulsively readable.

The story, "New Novartis Drug Shows Striking Efficacy in Treating Heart Failure," is one of a number of stories out today about a study being published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Barcelona, Spain. The study revealed long-awaited data about an experimental Novartis compound, code named LCZ696, that was designed to lower the risk of hospitalization and death in a large group of patients with heart failure. 

In people with this condition, the heart can't pump enough blood to the body's organs, leading to fatigue, shortness of breath, fluid retention, and...