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Revealing the Human Side of Science
Singularities - Profiles in Physics
Revealing the Human Side of Science
Korena Di Roma Howley, Contributing Editor
In the early 1960s, meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz observed that his computer simulations of future weather were sensitive to the tiniest changes in the starting value of his equations. This discovery led to chaos theory, and it’s one of the most famous stories in computational physics. But it isn’t the whole story.
In 2017 scientist Daniel Rothman came across an unfamiliar name in Lorenz’s seminal paper on chaos, “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow,” which led him to uncover the contributions of two women who worked as programmers in Lorenz’s lab. They are the subjects of science journalist Josh Sokol’s Quanta magazine piece “The Hidden Heroines of Chaos,” for which Sokol received the American Institute of Physics 2020 Science Communication Award for Articles.
In telling the stories of Ellen Fetter and Margaret Hamilton, Sokol lifted yet another curtain on the early work of women mathematicians. He does so, according to award judges, with an “exemplary combination of storytelling and physics explanation.”
After hearing from Rothman about his discovery, Sokol knew he had to write about it. “There were these people who had played pioneering roles, and they had been overlooked and not credited in the way they would be in the modern world,” he says. He describes the award as “enormously exciting and encouraging,” adding that it indicates a high level of engagement with the topic and with the issues of representation that the story addresses.
Sokol began his writing career while working as a research instrument analyst at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSci) in Baltimore, Maryland. A double major in astronomy and English literature at Swarthmore College, Sokol found that, from the start, he was particularly interested in Hubble’s wide-reaching public profile. “I ended up trying to convince the people who did press releases for Hubble to let me write some of them,” he said. “That was my first real ability to combine my interests, and it was really exciting.”
After two years at STSci, Sokol entered MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. He then completed a six-month internship at the UK-based New Scientist magazine. Today a freelance journalist, Sokol has contributed to Science, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, among other publications.
One of the most rewarding aspects of his work, he says, is the opportunity to address the human element of science stories. “You can talk about characters, and you can talk about scientists having emotions,” he says. “There’s freedom to tell the more traditional kinds of human stories and not just report the pure, rigorous scientific investigation.”
Still, for anyone interested in a career in science writing, Sokol says that the highly competitive field has its challenges, especially in the day-to-day generation of ideas and the work of selling those ideas to editors. He adds that while salaried writers and institutional communicators may have more stability, they also likely have less freedom to pursue topics that interest them.
“My work is very broad,” Sokol says. Though he continues to write about astronomy, he’s also covered other disciplines, including paleontology, disease ecology, and conservation.
His advice to aspiring science communicators: hone your writing skills. “They will serve you if you become a science writer, and they’ll serve you in your career,” he says. “It’s good to just practice explanatory writing and writing that gets people to care about an obscure subject.”
It’s also important, Sokol says, to find opportunities to write within an institution or department. “Work with the people who are doing the outreach communication and test out if you enjoy it and get them to give you feedback,” he says. “Because if you can do writing with a well-defined purpose and get feedback on it, that’s the way that you’ll improve and get to test your limits.” For those who then want to go further, he suggests seeking out programs such as the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship or considering a master’s program in science communication.
It also helps to love science, Sokol says. “I’m constantly thrilled that I get to learn about something cool every day.”